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Post Preparing for an elite draft weekend

Thursday April 28, 2022

A year ago I watched the Alabama-Ohio State title game and came away wondering what Alabama and other recent champs had that Georgia didn’t. Georgia’s recruiting for several years had been on par with or better than championship teams. Georgia had caught up in the facilities race, and there was no resource that the program lacked. As LSU produced a Heisman-winning quarterback and Alabama a Heisman-winning receiver, I kept coming back to this question: how do you get peak performance from your best players? How do you turn good talent – which Georgia had in spades – into the best players in the nation who will lead you to a national title?

Similar questions helped to frame the 2021 season. Did Georgia finally have its elite quarterback in J.T. Daniels? Could the offense perform at a high level without George Pickens? Was Todd Monken’s system going to deliver the evolution that propelled Alabama and LSU to their recent success? Kirby Smart made the point more abstract and blunt with a phrase most of us could recite by heart now: “you’re either elite or you’re not.”

The mistake I and others made was thinking about these questions only in the context of offense. It’s been beat into the heads of Georgia fans for the past five years or so that its approach on offense was holding the program back. If Georgia wanted the success and titles enjoyed by Clemson, LSU, and Alabama, they’d need to find their Lawrence, Burrow, or Tagovailoa – not to mention the fleet of future NFL receivers on the other end of those passes. They’d need an offensive system willing to turn the passing game loose.

Defense, after all, had done all it could do. Georgia’s defense was rated #1 by ESPN’s SP+ metric after both the 2019 and 2020 seasons. If the top-rated defense couldn’t do much to slow down the 2019 LSU offense or the 2020 Alabama offense, it was clear that a stout defense wasn’t the key to reaching the top. Georgia’s imperative would continue to be the transformation of the offense into something comparable to those other recent champions.

I hadn’t really considered that we could see a defense dominate the way recent offenses had. Georgia’s had wonderful defenders from Azeez Ojulari to Roquan Smith, but even that didn’t prepare us for entire dominant defensive line and linebacker groups. These units were to the Georgia defense what the LSU and Alabama passing games were in 2019 and 2020: difference-makers not only in September and October but against the best teams on the schedule. Yes, they were top-rated by SP+ again, but that can’t quite capture what it was like to watch Jordan Davis track down a player from behind, watch Travon Walker drop back into pass coverage, or see Channing Tindall fly in to make a tackle like a missile. The defense, which only had one representative on the preseason All-SEC first or second teams, were talked about it ways we’d only seen used to describe offenses in recent years.

While we were focused on the quarterback and offensive scheme, Georgia’s defense became the elite unit that the program needed to put it over the top and claim a national title. ***

Of course within an elite unit there are elite individuals. Georgia got peak performance from several defenders and made names like Jordan Davis and Nakobe Dean as recognizable as some Heisman finalists. “Elite” is a squishy superlative, and it’s not quite right to apply that label to just anyone who happens to have contributed to a national title. We can use stats or awards to attempt to make “elite” more objective, and maybe the NFL Draft is as good of a tool as any. There are draft misses all the time, but at least we have teams willing to put money on their evaluations. Georgia is in the middle of its best run of draft picks in program history, and that speaks to recruiting and the rising talent level in the program.

But even within the draft there are tiers. I wrote after last year’s draft that “the next step for Georgia is to have more of its players called even earlier in the draft and especially in the first round.” Again, there are first round busts every year, but on the whole these are the prospects judged most worthy of the NFL’s largest investments. LSU had five first round picks after their national title in 2019, and Alabama’s 2020 championship team produced six first-round picks. Georgia’s program-best three first round picks came after the near miss in 2017.

That next step is likely to happen this weekend. Georgia’s defenders are expected to come off the board early and often – perhaps as soon as the top overall pick. They might not match the first round totals of LSU or Alabama, but Georgia should still have heavy representation across the lucrative first three rounds. It won’t just be the defenders in the spotlight – offensive standouts like George Pickens, Jamaree Salyer, and James Cook will hear their names called.

After seven rounds we could see a record number of Bulldogs drafted. More importantly we could see records fall for Georgia players selected in the first three rounds. Georgia had twice as many early round picks (6) in 2021 as they had in 2020 (3), and there should be even more in 2022. As more Bulldogs move into the elite draft positions, it will be recognition certainly of their individual hard work but also of Kirby Smart’s recruiting and talent development. The top-rated classes that have enrolled since 2018 made the most of their college careers and are now among the top-rated draft prospects.

To bring it full-circle, perhaps the most gratifying development of the 2021 season for me was seeing a large number of Georgia players become the difference-makers that we had coveted in other recent champions. The national title was a by-product of those performances, and having that accomplishment in hand makes it much easier and more enjoyable to send these individuals off to the next level without the familiar pains of asking what might have been. Now it’s time for them to receive their individual recognition and reward at the sport’s highest level.

(*** – The defense’s special season shouldn’t be seen as a rejection of the need for change on offense. Georgia’s offense might have been overshadowed by the defense, but it still topped out as the nation’s #3-rated offense by SP+. Todd Monken stayed true to Georgia’s advantages in the ground game, but the passing attack wasn’t ignored. Monken found ways to use the versatility of James Cook and Kenny McIntosh, featured a new and unique threat in Brock Bowers, and put Stetson Bennett in positions to succeed and make the most of what Bennett brought to the position. The offense pulled its weight without the presumed starters at receiver and quarterback and the two players most would have considered key to the offense taking a step forward. If the defense takes a step back from superhuman to pretty damn good, I expect that the focus will shift somewhat back to offensive production. Fortunately Georgia is well-positioned to continue its evolution on that side of the ball.)


Post Georgia women’s basketball reboots for the first time in 40 years

Friday April 8, 2022

When Joni Taylor took over the Georgia women’s basketball program in 2015, the implied message was one of continuity. Of course Taylor went right to work putting her own mark on the program. Even as the lead assistant you’re not the one with the ultimate authority in a program’s operation. But the people and approach remained comfortably familiar. Two of the four coaches from Andy Landers’ final staff, including Taylor, remained with the program. The roster was largely unchanged and only had the usual attrition from graduation. The program’s daily operations weren’t interrupted or restructured. Then-deputy athletic director Carla Williams explained, “the program’s not broken.” Taylor had the cultural fit, was a favorite of fans and basketball alumni, and had the endorsement of Landers. It’s possible, without discounting the personal touches Taylor brought, to consider her seven years as an extension of what came before it.

With last week’s introduction of Katie Abrahamson-Henderson as Georgia’s next coach, nearly 40 years of continuity in Georgia basketball has ended. Yes, Coach Abe began her playing career at Georgia over 30 years ago and so understands its history and tradition, but that’s the extent of the connection. As a coach she is relatively unknown to Georgia fans. Her last four rosters at UCF have had one player from the state of Georgia. She will bring in her own assistants, and they have less coaching or playing experience in Georgia than Coach Abe. Only a few administrative staffers might remain to bridge the transition. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if you believe that the program needed a fresh approach in order to take the next step. But it does hint at the amount of work ahead of the new staff if the program is to reach a third straight NCAA tournament.

These are just some of the challenges awaiting Abrahamson-Henderson as she gets down to work:

The competitive landscape

When you take a job in the SEC, you know what you’re getting into. Women’s basketball is taking on a higher profile. There are national TV broadcasts, and the best players and coaches are building recognizable and effective personal brands through the college game. The SEC is leading the way, and the competitive energy required to keep up is intense. The conference has been active since Georgia last hired a coach: 9 of the 14 schools have changed head coaches in the meantime. High-profile hires have driven up the cost of doing business, and staff salary pools have had to keep pace. Increased media coverage means that nearly every game is broadcast and scrutinized. Nearly everyone is trying to get better and investing more in their program. Georgia must decide if it wants to ride this wave, and Coach Abe will have to hold the school accountable for its commitment to the program.

South Carolina has a stranglehold on top of the SEC, but the rest of the league has proven fairly transient as coaching changes took root. Kim Mulkey was able to elevate LSU from the middle of the pack to a second place finish in 2022. Mississippi State went in the other direction – from national title game appearances in 2017 and 2018 to out of the NCAA tournament in 2022. Texas A&M won the regular season title in 2021 but dropped into the bottom third of the league this season. New coaches at Ole Miss and Florida breathed new life into programs trapped in the conference cellar. That’s encouraging in one sense. The ceiling for the best SEC teams is the national title. On the other hand, it’s unsettling: it doesn’t take long to be passed by after a couple of sub-par recruiting classes, a rash of injuries, or an ineffective hire.

Another direct competitor Georgia fans might overlook is Georgia Tech. The series historically dominated by Georgia has taken a sharp turn towards parity. Tech rebuilt their program with foreign talent mixed with quality prospects from across the south. Georgia’s inability to lock down the state in recruiting (more on that below) aided this effort and has made Tech a thorn in Georgia’s side. In fact, Joni Taylor had a losing record (3-4) against the Yellow Jackets, and Georgia has dropped 3 of the last 4. Retaking control of this rivalry that was once an afterthought would be small but visible progress that any Georgia fan can appreciate.

Any discussion of college sports these days has to acknowledge the transfer portal. Georgia has been a popular transfer destination with standouts like Taja Cole, Mikayla Coombs, and Jenna Staiti joining the program. This coaching change might make the portal a little less popular among Georgia fans. The Lady Dogs have already seen a couple of players and prospects signal their intent to explore a transfer. The 2023 team was already going to be thin in a couple of spots before any attrition, so Abrahamson-Henderson will likely need to be active herself in the transfer market. Attracting transfers could have a lot to do with her success out of the gate before her more traditional recruiting operation kicks into gear. Speaking of recruiting…

Recruiting

As Georgia’s associate head coach from 2012-2015, Joni Taylor was already heavily involved with recruiting. That experience didn’t immediately pay off once she became head coach and revamped Georgia’s recruiting in the era of social media. Her first impactful infusion of talent came in 2017 with the nation’s #9 class that included recent stars like Que Morrison and Gabby Connally. Another top 20 class followed in 2019, but Georgia didn’t string together consecutive top 20 classes until 2021 and 2022. Georgia’s brand is national; the strong 2017 class featured three out-of-state players, and 5* prospects like Chloe Chapman (Maryland) and Reigan Richardson (North Carolina) have been added since. The bigger problems left for Abrahamson-Henderson to solve are consistency from year-to-year avoiding unbalanced classes and improving recruiting results right here at home.

It’s not news that the state of Georgia produces as much women’s basketball talent as it does for other sports. Recruiters flock to the state, and competition is fierce. Peach State talent is spread across the SEC. Only four SEC teams didn’t have a Georgia native on their roster last season, and more than half of the SEC had a Georgia native start a game. In 2019, 12 of 14 SEC teams had a player from Georgia. Both of this year’s national title game participants started a Georgian.

We often hear about Georgia’s difficulty recruiting in-state with men’s basketball. But many of those same issues have plagued the women’s program over the past 10-15 years. Georgia can always count on signing homegrown players, but it’s been tough to convince the state’s very best to stay home. Top prospects from Georgia have signed with schools as disparate as Stanford, Maryland, Duke, and UConn. Georgia signed the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year in 2004 and 2005. Since 2005 only two others – Anne Marie Armstrong and Sydney Bowles – have signed with Georgia out of high school. (Georgia will hope that Bowles remains committed through the coaching transition.) Two others, Staiti and Coombs, signed elsewhere before transferring to Georgia. Georgia’s slide from national and even SEC contender status has gone along with this struggle to attract the state’s best players to Athens.

The ascendency of South Carolina has only made the job more challenging. Before Bowles the previous two Georgia Gatorade Players of the Year inked with Dawn Staley. To buck that trend, a Georgia coach needs her version of A’ja Wilson: the elite player who could have signed anywhere and showed faith in the local program. Georgia began to show signs of progress in state with commitments over the past two years from Jillian Hollingshead, Janiah Barker, and Sydney Bowles. It remains to be seen whether those individual signings hold up through the transition, but the larger point is that Georgia was making some headway where it needed to. Abrahamson-Henderson and her staff won’t be starting completely from scratch, but establishing their own in-state connections and recruiting network must be a priority. Hopefully it won’t take 5+ years to do so.

Attendance

Forget the lazy excuse that Georgia fans just won’t support basketball. Tom Crean’s program set consecutive attendance records in 2019 and 2020 without a quality product on the court. That rising tide never lifted women’s basketball attendance, but that’s not to say that the program has never been a big draw. The top 10 women’s basketball crowds at Georgia, including five sell-outs, all occurred more than 10 years ago.

Attendance under Taylor grew modestly from just under 3,000 per game in 2017 to a high of 3,830 per game in 2019. It slid a bit in 2020 to 3,411 during a sub-par couple of years and of course took a nose-dive in the pandemic season of 2021. Fans cautiously made their way back to Stegeman in 2022 with an average of 2,861 per game. The season’s attendance high naturally came against South Carolina with 5,461 fans of both schools turning out. The Tennessee game drew 5,117 fans.

It might seem a little premature to talk about filling the seats before the program returns to the Sweet 16 and beyond. But the one thing that Crean got right is that fans can be a part of the rebuild. It’s easier to recruit if prospects can imagine themselves playing in front of large and energetic crowds. Networks want to put not only successful programs but bigtime environments in their best time slots. Those programs driving the growth of the sport are bringing in fans who might not have even considered women’s basketball 10 years ago. Attendance can’t be an afterthought that must wait until everything else falls into place.

There’s been a core group of fans that found the program during better years, but as they’ve aged and reduced in number there hasn’t really been a large inflow of new fans to replace them. Last season the school introduced an Enhancement Fund for women’s basketball comparable to funds used for other sports. Season tickets were tied to this new fund, essentially doubling the price of season tickets for the most loyal fans. That’s life in modern college athletics, but it also made the job of courting new seasons ticket holders that much more difficult.

This coaching transition is as good of a time as any to reevaluate how Georgia markets women’s basketball. What are some actions that might help Abrahamson-Henderson draw larger crowds to Stegeman Coliseum?

  • Win. Duh. The simplest way for Abrahamson-Henderson to grow the Georgia fan base will be to produce a consistent winner. Of course that’s the goal of any coach, but it works and is what built Georgia’s foundational fan base.
  • Play a compelling style of basketball. Georgia’s calling card over the past decade has been solid defense leading to more wins than losses, but often even the wins were as fun as a trip to the dentist. Coaches will tell you wins are wins, and purists can appreciate defensive battles. Unless you have the defense of the 2021 Georgia football team, low-scoring defensive grinds can be a tough sell. Abrahamson-Henderson pointed out the importance of a lock-down defense to the national title contenders and makes that a focus of her coaching, but she also promised an aggressive, up-tempo energy that should be entertaining.
  • Shamelessly self-promote. How did Georgia gymnastics become and remain Stegeman Coliseum’s top draw? How did Tom Crean set attendance records during some miserable seasons? They asked for it. Constantly. Suzanne Yoculan was a natural salesperson who made her meets must-see events as the program became the nation’s best. Crean hit the road during his first off-season energizing fans and student groups. Attendance was already on the way up when Anthony Edwards arrived, and that sent attendance to another record high.
  • Make growing the fan base a priority of the athletic department. Self-promotion can get you so far, but the effect can be multiplied by leveraging Georgia’s extensive resources. Cross-promote with other sports and season ticket holders – and that means more than waving to the crowd during a football timeout. Support and resources from the athletic department will be important in many areas; marketing is only one of them.
  • Develop and market star players – and build around them. Elite players will draw curious fans. Georgia hasn’t had a WNBA first-round pick since 2008. Jenna Staiti was only the second first-team All-SEC selection since 2016. Of course Georgia has had plenty of good players over those spans, but the program has struggled to produce the household names that fans will tune in to watch and buy tickets to see in person.
  • Engage students. There’s no question that the fan base trends older. Women’s basketball games are also popular with families and especially families with young daughters. It’s an inexpensive family entertainment option. It’s even less-expensive (free!) for Georgia students to attend, but that’s been a tougher group to reach. There have been giveaways and other promotions, but the bigger challenge is making women’s basketball games social events where friend groups want to congregate.

The almost-daily frenzy of news following Taylor’s departure will die down soon, but Coach Abe will be a whirlwind of activity over the next six months before preseason practice begins. Among other things she’ll have to evaluate Georgia’s returning players, get what she can out of the spring recruiting period and transfer portal, set up her own recruiting operation to catch up on the 2023 class and beyond, establish her offseason program, hold summer camps, and provide input on everything from her new office to next season’s schedule. It helps that she’ll have a familiar set of assistants who can anticipate her expectations and preferences, but they’ll also be making their own adjustments. It also helps that she’s done this before with great success. Whether that experience can translate to the SEC is the big question, and we’ll begin to see around October what this new era of Georgia women’s basketball will look like.


Post Monken’s greatest hits

Thursday April 7, 2022

Blutarsky posted what he considers his favorite Todd Monken play calls from the past two seasons. They’re great. The entire Michigan gameplan was a work of art.

Thinking about my favorite Monken plays I keep coming back to this one from the 2021 UAB game:

1st & 10 at UGA 11
(1:14 – 1st) Stetson Bennett pass complete to Brock Bowers for 89 yds for a TD, (Jack Podlesny KICK)

Here’s another look at it. The play is technically 11 personnel, but the tight end is split out to give a 4-wide look. The TE motions inside the receiver. While the receiver runs a post route to clear out the safety, the TE runs a wheel route to go back outside. A fake toss to the tailback on the play side draws in the linebackers and causes the defensive back covering Bowers to hesitate. With no safety help over the top, Bowers slips by the defensive back and gets behind the defense with a clear path to the endzone.

This is why it’s among my favorites:

  • Brock Bowers scores his first touchdown. We’d heard the buzz about him during spring ball and watched him at G-Day, but at the start of the season the bigger question was how Georgia would cope with Darnell Washington’s injury. Bowers scored twice against UAB and began to emerge as a key part of Georgia’s offense, and this play showed it all – his versatility to line up anywhere, his route-running, his hands, and of course his speed.
  • Years of preseason chatter about using the tight ends had become a running gag among Georgia fans. This is the year – we mean it this time! A big play from a tight end wheel route was pure catnip to these fans. Little did they know that this freshman tight end would be Georgia’s leading receiver on a national champion team.
  • What distinguishes the play isn’t just Bowers scoring. It’s the play itself offering multiple options to put the defense in a bind. Later in the game Monken came back to the same play flipped to the other side. Carson Beck fakes the tailback pitch and draws in a safety. This time the tight end, Seither, is covered on the wheel route. The other safety is held just long enough by a dig route coming across the middle. Justin Robinson settled into the vacated opening, and Beck found him for the easy score.

Yes – most plays from even the most pedestrian play callers have options and levels. Monken didn’t invent this stuff. It was still thoroughly enjoyable to see a play that 1) was well-designed, 2) was well-executed, and 3) made use of the skills of a talented playmaker to create an explosive scoring play. It was even more enjoyable to see the same concept score again with an entirely different set of personnel later in the same game.


Post Athens is getting a new arena?

Thursday March 24, 2022

A reader asks in Seth Emerson’s latest mailbag:

I wonder why UGA wouldn’t look to partner with the city for a new state-of-the-art arena that could house basketball and concerts?

Seth’s reply notes that Columbia, SC had good success doing just that, but Columbia is a larger city and state capitol. Further, “UGA likes the location of Stegeman, the middle of campus where students and fans alike can get there.” But, Emerson concludes, “if they were able to create some space in that (downtown) area it would help the long-term facilities plan” and free up some scarce land around the athletics complex.

It turns out that Athens is building a new downtown arena, but the University of Georgia’s varsity athletic teams won’t figure into those plans. This project has flown so far under the radar that Emerson didn’t seem aware of it in his response. I only stumbled across an article last week about its groundbreaking ceremony. The Classic Center Arena “is envisioned to provide a 5,500-seat public assembly facility/arena space” connected to both the Classic Center complex and the downtown multimodal transit facility. Groundbreaking is scheduled for Thursday April 28th, and equipment is already moving into place.

The arena, scheduled to open in 2023, will have 5,500 permanent seats “with the capacity to hold up to 8,000 people along with the ability to transform for any occasion from concerts and sports tournaments to banquets and general sessions.” Its ice rink will provide a larger space for Georgia’s club hockey team, and the Classic Center has signed an agreement to bring in a professional East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) team. It sounds like a nice little multi-use mid-sized event space for the Athens and northeast Georgia area. You can see plans and a virtual walkthrough here.

Was this a missed opportunity? I and Emerson’s correspondent asked whether the city and university ever considered a joint project. Emerson mentioned South Carolina’s facility. Rupp Arena is another example, anchoring the downtown Lexington hotel and convention center. Athens wouldn’t have needed to consider something at the scale of those two arenas – just a modest increase in capacity would bring the arena into line with new arenas at Ole Miss (9,500), Auburn (9,121), and a planned arena at Alabama (10,136). Athletic department funds could help increase the capacity and provide the finishing touches taking it from a nice small-town civic center to a modern collegiate arena. The Athens downtown is practically adjacent to the UGA campus, so an “off-campus” arena at the Classic Center isn’t really a problem for student access.

That ship seems to have sailed now – designs are finalized and earth will begin moving in about a month. Athens will have its own arena that can host high school sports tournaments, all but the largest concerts, and other events that can draw several thousand people. It won’t necessarily compete against Athens’ smaller music venues, but it might help to draw a wider variety of entertainment options to the area. Stegeman Coliseum was never really in this market aside from the occasional Homecoming concert or high school basketball championship. For now it will continue on as Georgia’s home for volleyball, gymnastics, and basketball fresh off an $8 million 2017 renovation.

The future of Stegeman Coliseum has been debated by Georgia fans for decades, and incremental renovations have transformed the building into a serviceable SEC facility. It might have reached its limit after the latest round of improvements. The location of a new arena has always been the sticking point: on-campus or off-campus? An on-campus arena is always the preferred location, and the current site is really the only viable on-campus space. But then what to do during the two years or so during construction? Georgia Tech played in Duluth while its arena was rebuilt in place ten years ago. That’s an option for Georgia, too, but an alternate location within walking distance of campus would be far better. If the Classic Center Arena isn’t going to be the permanent solution, it might at least serve as a temporary home if a decision is made down the road to replace Stegeman Coliseum in-place. Capacity would be a concern even if the 5,500 base capacity can be stretched upwards of 8,000. But that higher number gets you close enough to at least consider the tradeoff of capacity for the convenience of location.

I’m curious to see how this downtown arena comes together and what is possible with local municipal funding. It’s tough to shake the notion that something grander was possible in partnership with the University, but maybe this wasn’t the time or location for anything more ambitious. There certainly would have been many, but certainly not unique or unsolvable, questions of oversight and responsibility for a shared facility. There might have been legal limitations on the use of SPLOST funds. These plans were coming together as Greg McGarity planned his retirement and during the onset of the pandemic. Emerson himself has reminded us several times that Georgia’s athletic department lacked a master facilities plan, so an opportunity to develop a joint solution might have caught Georgia unprepared. Whatever the reasons, Athens will soon have its own small arena, and the University of Georgia will continue in its own 58-year-old on-campus facility.


Post Joni Taylor leaves Georgia with a mixed and unfinished legacy

Wednesday March 23, 2022

Georgia women’s basketball coach Joni Taylor has accepted the head coaching position at Texas A&M. Taylor was 140-75 (62-48 SEC) in seven seasons as Georgia’s head coach, took four teams to the NCAA tournament, and was named SEC Coach of the Year in 2021.

Taylor was a bold choice to follow Hall of Fame coach Andy Landers. Landers won over 800 games in 36 seasons at Georgia. Taylor had an extensive background as an SEC assistant, including several season as Landers’s lead assistant, but had no head coaching experience. The risky move seemed justified as Taylor was named National Rookie Coach of the Year in 2016. The next year Georgia signed a top-10 class featuring four top 100 players. They followed that up in 2018 with a top-16 national seed and finished tied for second place in the SEC.

It’s been an uneasy path forward since. Georgia missed the postseason in 2019 and would have in the 2020 season prematurely ended by the pandemic. The Lady Dogs narrowly avoided the program’s first losing season as an NCAA school, and Georgia had never missed consecutive NCAA tournaments. Georgia bounced back in 2021 as that 2017 recruiting class had its swan song. They finished fourth in the SEC, made the conference tournament finals, and earned a high seed in the NCAA tournament. 2022 was an ever-so-slight step back, but the team still won 20 games and earned a consecutive NCAA tournament bid for the first time in Taylor’s seven seasons.

Taylor is easy to like and even easier to respect, and that’s what makes her departure most hard to take. Taylor identified and built on core traits that she considered fundamental and unique to Georgia. There’s no mistaking that she is the child of two devoted educators: she is principled, driven, and commands attention. She carries herself with a no-nonsense demeanor that leaves no doubt about who is in charge, but she cares deeply about the personal development of the student-athletes she leads. Three of Taylor’s players have been named SEC Scholar Athlete of the Year. She can relate easily with the women on her team. Her “Beyond Basketball” outreach has been groundbreaking and a paradigm of professional and personal development for women. On top of it all, Taylor has started a family since becoming Georgia’s coach. She’s been a model of balancing family and career with a high-profile position in the public eye.

In short, Taylor would be the perfect coach if things went as well on the court.

Success can be relative: had Tom Crean or Mark Fox matched Taylor’s record over the past seven seasons, it would be among the best seven-year periods in Georgia men’s basketball history. Georgia women’s basketball though has a much richer legacy and tradition, and Taylor was quick to acknowledge and embrace that standard. When introduced as Georgia’s coach, she noted that Georgia has the “resources, facilities, and support to do things on a national level.” It’s debatable whether Taylor performed to that standard. Georgia missed as many NCAA tournaments in Taylor’s seven seasons as they had in all prior seasons. 20 of Georgia’s first 31 NCAA tournament teams advanced to the Sweet 16. None of Taylor’s four NCAA tournament teams did, and three times Georgia lost to a lower seed in the first or second round. Only two of Taylor’s seven teams finished higher than 6th in the SEC, and only those two teams advanced to the SEC tournament semifinals.

It’s incorrect and unfair to put the struggle to maintain the program’s standard completely on Taylor. When you begin asking “when was the last time Georgia….” many of the answers fall well before Andy Landers stepped down in 2015. Georgia’s successful 2021 campaign ended with a trip to the SEC tournament finals – a feat not accomplished at Georgia since 2004. The team’s 3-seed in the NCAA tournament was the program’s best since 2007. Georgia hasn’t produced an All-American since Ashley Houts in 2010. The program has produced no first-round WNBA picks since Tasha Humphrey in 2008. Let’s not pretend that Taylor inherited a national power full of All-Americans. Taylor had to address a long slide in recruiting and perception that began as programs like South Carolina and even Georgia Tech were on the rise. It could also be argued that Taylor had something to do with that slide – she was a top assistant coach and responsible for recruiting and player development during several of those seasons.

Are there signs that Taylor was finally starting to make some headway? Seven years can be an eternity to wait for results in college sports, but patience can sometimes pay off. It’s a positive development to reach the NCAA tournament in back-to-back seasons. Recruiting has also picked up. The current freshman class was rated #14 nationally, and the incoming class is rated #7. Those indicators at least are pointing in the right direction. That patience though came with its own problems. Taylor’s teams have never been especially proficient on offense, and there hasn’t been much urgency to change the approach that made it difficult to compete at the highest level. Taylor kept the same staff throughout her entire time at Georgia – a stability that seemed to reinforce her message of family but which also seemed more and more stagnant after seven seasons. The big payoff never really arrived.

It might seem to Taylor like a logical time to make a change. Her most successful recruiting class from 2017 has exhausted its eligibility, though Malury Bates has the option to return. The next wave of talent at Georgia is still young or yet to arrive, and a transition season might be ahead for Georgia. Her children haven’t reached school age yet. She’ll face a familiar situation and standard at Texas A&M. Gary Blair, like Landers, was a longtime successful SEC coach. Blair led A&M to the 2011 national title, the 2021 SEC regular season title, and the Aggies just named their court for him. The local recruiting landscape will be fierce with Baylor, an ascendant Texas program, and Kim Mulkey next door at LSU. Expectations will be high, but these are not new challenges for Taylor after seven seasons leading a program in the SEC.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that “the women’s basketball program might present the most difficult situation for (Josh) Brooks” relative to the other programs that call Stegeman Coliseum home. The men’s basketball program was so far gone that a coaching change was the obvious way forward. Taylor’s program isn’t remotely in that situation, and that was the puzzle for Brooks. It made no sense to replace Taylor, but at the same time the program didn’t seem on the verge of adding to Stegeman Coliseum’s banners. The problem to solve was getting more out of the program under its current leadership and approach. Whether that solution involved a staff shakeup, outside consultants to bring in new ideas, or additional resources, getting incremental improvement from a program that’s already performing relatively well is an extremely difficult task.

In a way, Taylor made it easier for Brooks by leaving. Brooks still has the great responsibility of finding a replacement, but he’s also able to start fresh and work with a new coach on a vision for the program. That’s a tremendous opportunity, but of course any change brings risk. The caution is becoming a program like Alabama, Vanderbilt, or Auburn – once-proud and successful programs that slid into years of losing seasons and cycles of coaching changes that never gained traction. That was always a possibility after Landers retired, and Taylor, to her credit, at least kept things from cratering. Georgia could easily go either way. Attrition and transfers will determine what the new coach has to work with: the foundation of a very good team is in place with the incoming recruiting class, but the talent level isn’t deep enough to survive the loss of those key signings or next season’s likely starters.

There’s no point naming a list of possible candidates since it should be a long and exhaustive list. A program with Georgia’s resources and legacy in women’s basketball should be able to attract some of the top names in the sport. During Taylor’s time at Georgia, the rest of the SEC has not stood still. LSU was able to hire Kim Mulkey away from Baylor. Dawn Staley has fortified her position at South Carolina. Promising hires at Auburn, Ole Miss, and Vanderbilt look to pull those programs out of the cellar. As I noted, Georgia is behind its peers when it comes to spending on basketball, and that impacts everything from the recruiting budget to hiring staff. It might have even had something to do with Taylor’s decision to leave. Brooks’s commitment to support the program with the full backing of the athletic department and its resources will be as important as the identity of the next coach.

Taylor’s charismatic leadership makes it tough for many Georgia fans to see her leave. A reset might be best for both parties though. She’ll be able to start the process again at Texas A&M using the experience she gained at Georgia. The Bulldogs can try to find a head coach more capable of elevating the program to the standard Taylor embraced when she accepted the position.


Post Stegeman’s unchanging banners an opportunity for Josh Brooks

Thursday March 10, 2022

It’s unfair to say that Josh Brooks has had an easy first year as Georgia’s athletic director. He’s already had to appoint three new head coaches under very different circumstances. He’s supervised the ongoing expansion of the Butts-Mehre facility to serve the football program and other sports. He’s listened to fans and made incremental improvements to the fan experience at Georgia sporting events. Brooks has been a busy man and a visible administrator.

It’s also true that Brooks came into the job at perhaps the best possible time. The school’s flagship football program is the best in the nation. Happy fans are buying tickets and merchandise, and the Hartman Fund donation numbers should be a sight to behold this year. Brooks, as befits his role as athletic director, was right there to join in all of the back-slapping and celebrations that went along with the national title. The months since the national title haven’t been as cheerful for Georgia’s winter sports, and Brooks might soon have to transition from posing for pictures with the CFP trophy to less pleasant duties and press conferences.

Stegeman Coliseum’s banners hang from the west end of the arena, and you can’t help but notice them while facing the flag during the performance of the national anthem. As you’d expect, Georgia’s historically strong gymnastics program claims most of the accomplishments (and only national titles) celebrated on those banners. The women’s basketball program adds its five Final Four appearances and eight SEC crowns. We know that championship seasons for men’s basketball have been few and far between, but they too have their place with a Final Four run in 1983 and three SEC titles.

What stands out is that none of the banners have needed an update since 2009. Stegeman’s winter occupants haven’t brought home an SEC title, much less a national title, since the GymDogs sent Suzanne Yoculan into retirement by rallying for another national championship in 2009. The only other schools without SEC titles in basketball or gymnastics since 2009 are Arkansas and Missouri. Are any of these sports close to adding to their banners?

Stegeman Banners

Men’s Basketball

The fate of the 2021-2022 men’s basketball season was sealed last spring. Tom Crean was retained after an unremarkable year. Nine players transferred out. The current roster was cobbled together from a few remaining players, a low-impact signing class, and whatever Georgia could scrape together from the transfer portal. The nature of Crean’s contract buyout essentially placed the program in hospice for a year. There was little doubt how it would end. The only questions were “when will it end?” and “how bad would it get?” We know the answers are “now” and “historically bad.”

Success in men’s basketball has been the white whale of Georgia athletics. Everyone has an idea how to fix things, but they all boil down to recruiting. Almost every year someone points out the Georgia natives enjoying postseason success elsewhere. This year we’ve been reminded weekly how several key members of the 2021 Georgia team have important roles for contenders. Recruiting is more than getting an isolated signature: it’s a sustained process of assembling and retaining a competitive roster year after year. Anthony Edwards was a recruiting coup for Tom Crean, but no one followed. Sahvir Wheeler and KD Johnson were above-average guards who left for better opportunities when a more competitive frontcourt couldn’t be built around them. Just assembling a quality roster and holding it together long enough to build something has been too much to ask.

Because of the transient nature of the 2021-2022 roster, the next men’s basketball coach won’t start out in a good position. There won’t be much of a splash in the spring recruiting period. There will be some typical attrition. Perhaps a handful of contributors from the current squad stick it out through the transition. Georgia will again be reliant on incoming transfers for a good chunk of its roster next season while the new staff gets its recruiting operation into gear. It’s likely to be an ugly, messy situation for a year or two – and that’s the lower limit if the next coach can gain recruiting traction within a year. Will that challenge make Georgia a less-attractive destination for a promising coaching prospect?

Gymnastics

North Carolina women’s soccer. Iowa wrestling. Arkansas track and field. Few schools are fortunate to host a college sports dynasty, and Suzanne Youculan’s ten national titles from 1987-2009 made Georgia gymnastics a national powerhouse. Yoculan went out on top with five straight national titles from 2005-2009 before she retired. Dynasties end, and it’s never easy going replacing a legendary coach. Jay Clark struggled to sustain the program’s success and has had much better results at LSU. Danna Durante managed three Super Six appearances from 2013-2016 but couldn’t bring home titles. With Yoculan’s blessing, Courtney Kupets Carter – one of Georgia’s superstars during the five straight titles in the 2000s – was brought in to recapture Georgia’s former glory and has been at the helm for five seasons.

Unfortunately Kupets Carter hasn’t returned Georgia to the level of the Yoculan era. The program has even slid from Durante’s time. Georgia finished 2021 ranked #18 and will finish the 2022 regular season out of the top 20. Meanwhile, programs like Florida, LSU, and even Auburn have taken steps forward. Top-ranked Oklahoma will be joining the SEC soon.

There is much more sentimental attachment to Kupets Carter than there is to someone like Crean. Kupets Carter is a beloved figure in Georgia sports history and one of its most accomplished athletes. She took over with a hearty endorsement from Suzanne Yoculan. Yoculan even assisted for a season while Kupets-Carter found her stride as head coach. There has been some bad luck with injuries, but the program shows no signs of returning to SEC contender or national Super Six status anytime soon.

Women’s Basketball

The women’s basketball program might present the most difficult situation for Brooks. Joni Taylor took a team to the SEC tournament final in 2021, was named SEC coach of the year, and is headed back to the NCAA tournament for the second straight season. That’s not a floundering program. Yet, due to Dennis Felton’s improbable run to the SEC tournament title in 2008, the women’s basketball program has gone the longest without adding to its Stegeman Coliseum banners. It’s been over 20 years since Kelly Miller’s buzzer-beater gave Georgia the 2001 SEC tournament championship. Georgia got as far as the NCAA Regional Final in 2004 and 2013 but came up just short of the Final Four. They haven’t returned to the Sweet 16 since.

Taylor’s results have been inconsistent over her seven seasons. This year marks just the first time she’s been able to string together consecutive NCAA tournament bids. Georgia has earned two top 16 national seeds in Taylor’s seven seasons, but they’ve been unable to sustain that level of play in the subsequent seasons. Last season’s SEC final appearance fizzled out in the second round of the NCAA tournament. A promising 2022 season that had Georgia approaching the top ten ended in an early-round exit at the SEC tournament. Recruiting seems to be on the upswing: Georgia will welcome the #7 signing class after inking the #14 class a year ago. Getting more out of these signing classes must be a priority.

The trap is complacency. The program has not come close to the futility of the men’s program, but neither has it met the standard Taylor embraced when she took over from Andy Landers. Georgia’s staff has remained unchanged since Taylor took over for the 2015-2016 season. The rest of the SEC has not stood still. Georgia shows signs of stability and even some progress in recruiting, but you also don’t want to plateau as a program that just makes it into the NCAA tournament and struggles to finish in the SEC top four. That was the state of the program when Landers decided it was time to step aside. Taylor’s program might be the closest of the three to adding another title, but are there steps Brooks can take to help Taylor get her program to the next level? How do you send the message that good should be better?

A common thread?

Recently ESPN’s Mark Schlabach went in-depth about the persistent issues with Georgia men’s basketball. The points are familiar ones to UGA basketball fans, but the details about Georgia’s recruiting approach in particular are still bewildering. Schalabach also brings up Georgia’s facilities. The practice facility was state of the art when it opened 15 years ago and is still a strong resource with dedicated practice, training, and locker space for all three programs. Stegeman Coliseum itself received a major facelift just a few years ago with improvements to the seating bowl and concourses. There is only so much that can be done to Stegeman without replacing it completely, and Georgia is close to that limit. A new facility is a separate discussion, but Georgia has invested quite a bit in capital improvements for these sports over the past two decades.

But capital spending is only one type of investment in the programs. The annual budgets provide the resources to operate day-to-day in those facilities. In 2015, Georgia’s football expenses were about $2 million below the SEC median. By 2020 Georgia was spending $7 million more on football than the median SEC school. Kirby Smart led a significant increase in the football support staff, recruiting resources, and other expenses to go along with capital projects like the West Endzone, indoor practice facility, and Butts-Mehre expansion.

Spending has increased on Georgia’s basketball programs, but they still lag relative to their SEC peers. For the reporting year 2020, Georgia spent $8.3 million on men’s basketball. LSU spent $9.3 million, Tennessee spent $13.1 million, South Carolina spent $8.2 million, and Kentucky blew everyone away with $19.1 million in men’s basketball expenses. For women’s basketball, Georgia spent $4.4 million. LSU spent $4.7 million, Kentucky spent $5.3 million, South Carolina spent $6.9 million, and Tennessee spent $7.3 million.

It’s not about the head coach’s salary. Crean earned $3.2 million, making him one of the 20 highest-paid coaches in the nation in 2020. Taylor likewise is paid well relative to the market. As with football, the annual budget allows a program to increase the support staff, have a larger pool of funds with which to attract better assistants, and provide better meals, travel, and other quality-of-life benefits for the players. Of course there’s not a direct relationship between spending and success, but Georgia’s relative thriftiness here isn’t done out of virtue. It’s no surprise though that Kentucky men’s basketball and Tennessee women’s basketball are among the biggest spenders. Kirby Smart made the case for an expansion of the football budget when he took the job. Will the athletic administration be as receptive if a new basketball coach makes a similar case?

The fans are already there

Tom Crean implored fans to pack Stegeman during his first two seasons, and they responded with sellouts in an unmistakable show of faith in the new coach. Georgia basketball was a hot ticket during the Anthony Edwards season even without a winning team on the court. Support has waned as the program failed to live up to its end of the deal. The GymDogs still draw large crowds and sold out a recent meet with Auburn as the large fan base built by Yoculan’s tireless showmanship persists through some lean years. Even women’s basketball drew large crowds during their championship and Final Four seasons. Georgia is indeed a football school, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a large number of Georgia fans who would like to see more from the winter sports and who are willing to show up and support those programs.

Fans will be watching how Josh Brooks handles the men’s basketball transition. It’s not only an opportunity to reverse the decades-long fortunes of that program. It’s also going to be a signal to fans of all of Stegeman’s occupants. What will be the standards for success? What level of investment and support can these programs expect? Can the same combination of institutional vision and resources that led to a title in Indianapolis also align to finally add more dates to Stegeman Coliseum’s banners?


Post 2022 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Wednesday March 2, 2022

The 2021-2022 SEC women’s basketball season continued the return of college sports to normalcy. Crowds were back, and the league managed a complete 16-game conference schedule despite some midseason hiccups. Teams like Arkansas and Ole Miss had to play three games in the final week of the regular season to accommodate earlier cancellations. Nearly every team had to deal with players and coaches entering safety protocols during the midseason COVID wave, but no one looks to be leaving anyone at home for the postseason.

The 2022 SEC tournament returns to Nashville this week after three years in Greenville, and an unrestricted crowd welcomes hometown Vanderbilt back to the festivities. The Commodores played only three SEC games a year ago before opting out of the remainder of their season. They’ll be excited to return to the tournament and might be an interesting early-round team to watch. One thing to keep an eye on each year is how the crowd ebbs and flows with the success of individual schools. South Carolina has owned Greenville recently, but Nashville has always been Tennessee country. Kim Mulkey has been filling LSU’s arena – will a legion of purple and gold follow her to Nashville? What about surprising teams like Ole Miss or Florida – have the fan bases had time to catch up with their unexpected success?

Two recent NCAA rules changes had a big impact on the women’s basketball season. Allowing seniors to return for an additional season meant that some of the league’s top players were back for another go. No team made better use of this rule than LSU who rode their super-seniors to a second place finish. The transfer portal and one-time transfer allowance remade women’s basketball rosters as much as they did for football and other sports. Teams added important pieces to their roster, but a couple of teams also had key players decide to transfer out mid-season. There was change on the sidelines as well: four schools introduced new head coaches, and each improved their program’s win total from a year ago.

Some developments were more predictable. South Carolina secured another regular season SEC title after finishing second in 2021, and they spent most of the year as the nation’s top-ranked team. Dawn Staley’s next wave of talent are upperclassmen now, and they’ve been joined by the nation’s top recruiting class. The Gamecocks were denied a postseason in 2020 by the pandemic, came up just short in the national semifinal in 2021, and have their sights set on nothing short of the national title this year. They will be the overwhelming favorite in Nashville, but an upset loss early in the year at unranked Missouri reminds the Gamecocks that they can’t be looking ahead to bigger goals just yet.

The rest of the bracket should have some entertaining uncertainty. Some of the more recent blue bloods struggled but have the firepower and coaching to advance in the tournament. Teams have battled injuries and attrition throughout the season, and several have had to make up games late in the year. Every team is banged up and fighting fatigue this time of year, but some might be feeling it more than others. The daily format of the tournament might be too much to ask for some of the contenders. Several schools are playing for a possible NCAA tournament bid. Even last-place Auburn knocked off Tennessee and Georgia during the regular season and came within a few points of four or five additional wins. There are several new teams in the upper half of the conference who might stay in the tournament much longer than we’re used to seeing. Last year Georgia made news by advancing to the title game from the four seed. This year another relative newcomer like Florida, LSU, or Ole Miss wouldn’t be a surprise finalist.

Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:

Wednesday: Bye
Thursday / Second Round: vs. ALA/AUB ~9:30 PM ET SEC Network
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs. TENN: ~9:30 PM ET SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: ~7:30 pm ET ESPNU
Sunday / Finals: 2:00 pm ET ESPN2
Complete Bracket Here

The Field

(LY – last year’s finish, PS – coaches preseason projection)

1) South Carolina (15-1, 27-1) (LY-2, PS-1): A loss to Texas A&M on the final day of the 2021 regular season denied the Gamecocks another SEC title, but they recovered to claim the tournament championship. This year South Carolina won the regular season going away and are the overwhelming favorites to repeat on Championship Sunday. Titles are old hat now for South Carolina’s junior class – that’s right, they’ll be back – and they’ve added tremendous depth that’s shored up just about any weakness they might have had. South Carolina’s success isn’t limited to the SEC. They had a perfect nonconference slate with wins over strong teams like NC State, Oregon, UConn, Stanford, and Maryland. As strong as the record is and as complete as the roster looks, it hasn’t been a cakewalk. They had to rally to beat UConn and Stanford. The sole loss to Missouri was a head-scratcher, but a handful of other SEC teams have pushed the Gamecocks. A 12-0 run put away Ole Miss in a tight game in their most recent game. That’s generally been the theme this year: there have been scoring droughts that allowed opponents to hang around or even get out ahead, but South Carolina has almost always had an answer at the end of games.

Likely national player of the year Aliyah Boston was a star after two seasons but has worked to become even better. Most any broadcast will note how she changed physically in the offseason, and the results have been evident. Boston enters the tournament with an SEC record 21 double-doubles, and she’s notched many of those points and rebounds before halftime. Boston’s junior classmates Zia Cooke and defensive specialist Brea Beal have also been standouts since their freshman seasons. South Carolina isn’t without senior leadership: Destanni Henderson is one of the SEC’s assist leaders but also shoots 40% from outside. Victaria Saxton is a multi-year captain and starter averaging over 5 points and 5 rebounds a game.

It’s the depth that really makes South Carolina special. The reserves could start for most teams, and Dawn Staley has barely had to dip into the nation’s top recruiting class. Laeticia Amihere is the type of tall, athletic forward any coach would like to have. 6’7″ Kamilla Cardoso was the ACC freshman and defensive player of the year at Syracuse. Destiny Littleton can come off the bench and shoot 37% from outside. Last year Staley stuck to a rotation of about seven or eight players. That’s expanded this year. South Carolina only has one player (Boston) among the SEC’s top 25 scorers, but that’s a byproduct of the team’s depth and balance.

2) LSU (13-3, 25-4) (LY-8, PS-8): Kim Mulkey has fans of 12 other SEC schools asking why a coach in her first season can elevate LSU to a top-ten national ranking and a solid second place SEC finish. Of course Mulkey is no ordinary coach, and LSU is no ordinary team. The Tigers benefitted more from the additional COVID year of eligibility than just about any other program. LSU had four players decide to return for a fifth season, and three-year Vanderbilt starter Autumn Newby transferred in as a graduate student. That core of experience returning has been a big part of LSU’s success, but it was still a group that finished eighth last season. It took Mulkey to get the most from them, and anyone hoping that there would be an adjustment with Mulkey taking over in Baton Rouge is very disappointed. Most impressively, LSU has taken on their coach’s fearless personality in big games. LSU is 6-1 against teams ranked at game time, and the sole loss was a narrow setback to South Carolina. Mulkey has reenergized support for LSU women’s basketball with crowds of nearly 7,000 for routine SEC home games and a sellout for an important late-season showdown against Florida with second place on the line.

Khayla Pointer made a strong statement to return after her aunt was dismissed as head coach, and Faustine Aifuwa, Awa Trasi, and Jailin Cherry followed. Pointer, Aifuwa, and Cherry are three of the team’s top scorers, and Trasi provides experienced depth off the bench. Alexis Morris is another experienced senior transfer now in her fourth program. Morris earned a starting role and is another of the team’s leading scorers, but she’ll likely be unavailable in Nashville after spraining her knee in the final week of the season. The Tigers should have enough depth and experience to overcome the absence of Morris, but it could hurt their chances in a rematch against South Carolina.

3) Tennessee (11-5, 22-7) (LY-3, PS-3): Tennessee went without a top-four finish from 2015-2020, but Kellie Harper brings the Lady Vols in at #3 for the second straight season. They looked to be headed for a much higher finish after leaving Athens with an 18-1 record and a top 4 national ranking. February wasn’t as kind: the Lady Vols are 4-6 over their final ten games with some bad losses to teams like Alabama, Auburn, and Florida sprinkled in among setbacks to UConn, South Carolina, and LSU. Some key injuries haven’t helped. Reserve forward Keyen Green was lost for the season at Georgia hurting Tennessee’s depth inside. Leading scorer and rebounder Jordan Horston suffered a serious arm injury at Alabama. Tennessee survived an earlier injury to wing Rae Burrell, but she hasn’t been 100% as the team leans more on her with Horston out. Tennessee should have their usual raucous partisan tournament crowd in Nashville, but even the friendly confines of Thompson-Boling Arena haven’t been a safe haven this year.

The Lady Vols have limped to the finish line relying on their core strengths: using their size advantage at most positions to play frenzied and menacing defense and control rebounds on both ends of the court. Offense has fallen off: Tennessee has shot under 40% six times since winning at Georgia, and they’ve only won one of those games (Arkansas). Rebounding totals that were often over 50 and as high as 60 against Arkansas have been below 45 in five of their last eight games. So long as the team has the scoring of Burrell and the size of Tamari Key inside, they can compete with most teams and took LSU down to the wire in the regular season finale. Guard play can be hit or miss – Tennessee has four or five guards capable of hitting big shots, but Tennessee averages over 17 turnovers per game and has turned the ball over 100 more times (497) than their opponents (397).

4) Ole Miss (10-6, 22-7) (LY-11, PS-6): What a story. Ole Miss was winless in the conference two years ago. It was an accomplishment to finish 11th in 2021. They continued their progress and finished 2021 with a trip to the WNIT title game. Coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin’s program hit the bigtime this year with a top four SEC finish, and national ranking, and a certain NCAA tournament bid. The Rebels stormed out of the gate with a 17-2 record and finally drew enough national attention to crack the rankings just in time to play South Carolina. They lost four out of five midseason including three losses to ranked teams, but they finished well with four straight wins and a competitive loss to South Carolina in the regular season finale. It would be another step forward for the program if they can advance to Saturday’s semifinals for a third crack at the Gamecocks.

The Rebels channel Coach Yo’s energy into frenetic defense – they’re second only to Vanderbilt in steals and turn opponents over almost 19 times per game. Lashonda Monk and Madison Scott alone have 100 of the team’s 277 steals. That defensive intensity has been a constant over the past couple of seasons. A maturing offense has helped move Ole Miss up the standings. Shakira Austin is a gifted post player poised to be a high WNBA draft pick in a few weeks. Scott continues to develop as one of the more exciting wing players in the conference. The team needs help from Angel Baker and Snudda Collins from the shooting guard position as Donnetta Johnson was injured late in the season.

5) Florida (10-6, 20-9) (LY-12, PS-11): You’d never have guessed in January that Florida was headed for a national ranking and a tie for fourth place. The Gators made an unexpected coaching change over the summer and elevated assistant Kelly Rae Finley to interim head coach. They had an unremarkable nonconference performance (which has held back their prospects for a higher NCAA tournament seed.) They dropped their first two SEC games. Then leading scorer Lavender Briggs left the team for good after returning from the transfer portal. They responded by winning 10 of 11 games with only a loss to South Carolina breaking up the streak. Their winning streaks included five defeats of ranked opponents including a 84-59 demolition of Tennessee followed by a rare win at Georgia. Finley deserves a ton of credit for Florida’s resiliency, but a fleet of guards did the work on the court. Kiki Smith, Nina Rickards, and Rutgers transfer Zippy Broughton are quick, slashing guards capable of scoring from anywhere. Forward Jordyn Merritt is a matchup nightmare who, at 6’3″, leaded the team with 30 three-pointers and shoots over 40% from outside. Florida had a shot to finish in second place, but three straight losses to end the season brought them back to earth. The question heading into the postseason is whether this group picked to finish 11th was punching well above their weight.

6) Georgia (9-7, 20-8) (LY-4, PS-4): The Lady Dogs caused a bit of a stir last year with a 4th place finish and a run to the championship game. Joni Taylor was named coach of the year, and prospects for another strong season were bolstered by the return of two eligible seniors. Center Jenna Staiti and guard Que Morrison have had huge fifth seasons – they are Georgia’s leading scorers and top defenders, and it’s not a pleasant thought what this season would have been without them. One eligible senior who didn’t return was Gabby Connally, and Georgia has missed her in a couple of ways. Georgia doesn’t start a true point guard – the duties usually fall to Morrison, but the team has taken a committee approach with mixed results. Connally was also the player you wanted with the ball in late-game situations, and there really hasn’t been a player to step into that role this year. Buzzer-beater isolation plays for Morrison have rarely been effective, and more complex plays tend to fall apart when seconds matter.

Defense remains Georgia’s calling card. It’s truly a team approach that relies on traps, double-teams, and intelligent rotation and help. Opponents only average 58.4 points per game against Georgia. The Lady Dogs are at their best creating turnovers and getting out in transition. Senior Mikayla Coombs is outstanding at intercepting passes, and Morrison often has to lock down the other team’s best scorer. Halfcourt offense can be an adventure, and both turnovers and long scoring droughts have been big problems. Staiti is a reliable scorer, but she’s also the focal point of opponent defenses. Georgia’s challenge has been finding complementary players and outside shooting to free up their top scorer. Lately that answer has come from freshman Reigan Richardson, but it’s been a nightly test for Joni Taylor to discover who has the hot hand. Georgia is deep in that they’ll play many players; the trick has been finding effective lineup combinations without much scoring dropoff. In some games its been the starters who struggled to score while bench players provided the spark. This offensive inconsistency has cost Georgia several winnable conference games that would have had them comfortably among the top four.

Georgia started the season strong with wins away from home against NC State, Notre Dame, and Texas Tech. A 4-2 start in the SEC had Georgia ranked as high as #13 and listed as an NCAA top 16 seed in the initial bracket reveal. A close home loss to then-#5 Tennessee slowed Georgia’s climb up the polls, and a midseason three-game losing streak took Georgia out of the national spotlight. There was still a shot at a top four SEC finish, but a disappointing loss at last-place Auburn sunk those hopes. Georgia did respond with nice wins over Arkansas and Texas A&M to close the season and avoid falling further down the standings. A win at then-#24 Ole Miss was Georgia’s only conference win over a ranked opponent. Small mistakes become magnified against better competition, and Georgia has struggled to make the big plays in tight games against the top half of the conference. In many respects, it’s been a good season – Georgia will win 20 games in consecutive seasons and make consecutive NCAA tournaments for the first time under Joni Taylor. But repeating last season’s SEC tournament run will require a much different mindset and execution in the fourth quarter, and there were some signs against Arkansas and A&M. The postseason can produce its own stars – will Georgia have someone step up as its leader late in games?

7) Kentucky (8-8, 15-11) (LY-5, PS-5): Each year there seems to be a team further down in the standings that no one else wants to play. Kentucky is that team this year. Few teams were hit by midseason absences more than the Wildcats. A combination of illness, injuries, and a suspension tested the roster and coach Kyra Elzy’s creativity and ability to hold things together. December was an especially trying period for the team, and they went more than two weeks over the holidays before finally opening their SEC slate with an upset of Georgia. The Wildcats lost eight of their next nine SEC games to fall from the rankings and out of postseason consideration. As the team’s health improved during February, the results followed. Kentucky enters the postseason winners of six straight that include big road wins at Arkansas and Missouri. We should tap the brakes a bit – none of these six wins were against a ranked opponent, and all of them came against teams that finished lower than Kentucky in the standings. Still, an 8-8 finish after starting 2-8 is enough to have Kentucky back in the NCAA tournament conversation and gives them plenty to play for in Nashville. A quarterfinal rematch against LSU might be one of the more interesting Friday games.

Everyone knows about Rhyne Howard, and the two-time SEC Player of the Year has been the one constant this year amidst a shifting roster. Howard might not repeat as POY again but still is Kentucky’s leader and most important player. Their most valuable player might be someone else: forward Dre’una Edwards served a four-game suspension that coincided with Kentucky’s losing streak, and her presence makes Kentucky a much different team. Edwards is Kentucky’s second-leading scorer, pulls down nearly 8 rebounds per game, and can step outside and shoot from the perimeter. She is averaging 23 points and 9 rebounds per game during Kentucky’s six-game winning streak and gives the Wildcats just the complement they need to draw defensive attention away from Howard.

8) Arkansas (7-9, 17-12) (LY-6, PS-7): It’s been a bit of a rebuilding year after losing a couple of first round picks in Chelsea Dungee and Destiny Slocum. There’s still no question what to expect from Arkansas. There are still plenty of players capable of executing Mike Neighbors’s up-tempo offense. The youth of the roster might have meant less consistency than the past two seasons, but this is still a fun team to watch and should be among the NCAA field of 68. Amber Ramirez and Makayla Daniels continue the legacy of sharpshooting guards. Ramirez is a threat to score as soon as she crosses halfcourt. Daniels has slowly worked back in after a scary leg injury in early February but might be rounding back into form with 17 PPG in the past two games. Samara Spencer, Rylee Langerman, and Sasha Goforth have stepped forward as underclassmen, and Jersey Wolfenbarger is a 6’5″ freshman forward who can sprint the court and gives the high-flying Razorback offense an inside presence who can keep up with the pace. The sum of the parts might not be fully baked yet, but when it comes together – as it did for 90 points in a win over LSU – watch out.

9) Missouri (7-9, 18-11) (LY-10, PS-10): Missouri opened SEC play with an upset of #1 South Carolina and finished it with an upset of #23 Florida. In between it’s been a bit of a mess as the team struggled to put together many quality wins. Their identity hasn’t changed much – the Tigers still are up near the top of the league in three pointers attempted, and no one shoots a better percentage from outside. Hayley Frank and Aijha Blackwell both average around 15 points per game. Frank, at 6’1″, is a matchup nightmare shooting over 47% from outside. LaDazhia Williams is again the team’s top post scoring threat but doesn’t rebound at the rate you’d expect of a 6’4″ player. Blackwell remains a scoring and rebounding machine in her third season, but she hasn’t taken the next step to SEC stardom. She has even been left home on a couple of road trips this year for disciplinary reasons. Four players, including Blackwell, were recently suspended for a game against Kentucky. That unsettled dynamic hasn’t helped the team’s record, and coach Robin Pingeton has taken the hit to uphold the team’s accountability standards. Missouri might have the most at stake in Nashville – a loss to Arkansas could knock them off the NCAA bubble.

10) Mississippi State (6-10, 15-13) (LY-9, PS-9): Call them the poor man’s Florida? Like the Gators, Mississippi State had a sudden and unexpected coaching change before the season. An interim coach, Doug Novak, has guided them through the season. Their leading scorer, Rickea Jackson, decided to transfer out mid-season. MSU didn’t have quite the season that Florida did, but they performed better than expected given a depleted roster. Dominant center Jessika Carter sat out this season tackling mental health issues but is expected to rejoin the program next year. The remainder of the roster showed good fight and notched a satisfying win over rival Ole Miss. That win had MSU at 6-5 in the SEC and still hopeful for an NCAA bid, but they dropped their final five games. They’ll need to beat Kentucky and likely LSU to have any shot, but a WNIT bid is possible. Anastasia Hayes has taken over as the focal point of the offense, and Myah Taylor has been an effective backcourt mate. JerKaila Jordan has scored in double figures in seven of the past nine games and will have to have another strong game to have a chance against Kentucky.

11) Alabama (6-10, 15-12) (LY-7, PS- 12): Alabama returned to the NCAA tournament a year ago for the first time in over 20 years and advanced to the second round. They lost a trio of seniors from that breakthrough season and have taken a step back this year trying to replace the production. Guards are the team’s top four scorers, and it’s no coincidence that the team is second-only to Arkansas in three pointers attempted. Such a reliance on the outside shot has brought their overall percentage down, and they can be streaky. Brittany Davis leads the Tide in scoring and has been on a tear lately averaging 26 points per game over the last four. Alabama is 3-1 over that stretch with wins over Tennessee and Texas A&M. Davis isn’t just a spot shooter – she’s the team’s leading rebounder and has several double-doubles. While the Tennessee win is the only real quality win on their schedule, they’ve come close against Georgia, Kentucky, and LSU and are playing well entering the postseason. Post production could be a problem, but guards Davis, Megan Abrams, and JaMaya Mingo-Young can carry the team if they’re all on. Their potential path through the tournament brings them up against Auburn, Georgia, and Tennessee – teams they’ve either beaten or come within four points of beating.

12) Texas A&M (4-12, 14-14) (LY-1, PS-2): It hasn’t been a pleasant farewell tour for Gary Blair and his defending SEC champions. A sizeable chunk of talent departed after last season, and that might’ve been a more appropriate time for a coaching legend to ride off into the sunset. Blair returned for one more year with a number of contributors from that championship squad, and coaches thought enough of the roster to predict a second place finish. Loss after loss began to pile up, and the Aggies find themselves in the position of needing a win over Vanderbilt just to qualify for a WNIT bid. A midseason three-game winning streak over Arkansas, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt gave hope of a turnaround, but the Aggies head to Nashville on a five-game slide. What happened? 2021 SEC Sixth Woman of the Year Destiny Pitts, Jordan Nixon, and Kayla Wells were key members of the 2021 team that couldn’t quite replace the lost production from a deep senior class. Another change is that the departure of Ciera Johnson and N’dea Jones took away a formidable inside presence. A&M has had to become much more of a perimeter-oriented team. Shooting percentage is down, and opponent rebounds are up from a year ago. If they get past Vanderbilt, they’ll face Florida. That earlier meeting produced a 2OT thriller, and a rematch could be one last shot at glory for Blair.

13) Vanderbilt (4-12, 13-17) (LY-14, PS-14): First-year coach and former UConn star Shea Ralph took over a program that hadn’t won more than four conference games since 2018. Last season the Commodores pulled the plug on the season after just three conference games. Ralph has already equaled Vanderbilt’s best conference record since 2018 and took down Arkansas, Kentucky, and Florida. The team continued to improve towards the end of the season even if it wasn’t reflected in the record. Losses to Kentucky, Ole Miss, and Alabama in the final two weeks were all within reach late into the fourth quarter. Ralph likes to go deep into her bench: ten players see at least nine minutes per game and have appeared in at least 15 games. Guards Brinae Alexander and Iyana Moore lead the scoring and shoot around 36% from outside. Senior guard Jordyn Cambridge is a fierce competitor who can attack the basket, get to the foul line, and distribute the ball to open teammates. Cambridge also leads the team in steals and defensive rebounds – in fact, Vanderbilt outrebounds opponents by a slim margin but does so by committee without a true post presence.

14) Auburn (2-14, 10-17) (LY-13, PS-13): For the first time since 2019, there won’t be a winless team at the conference tournament. Auburn earned their way into the win column with impressive home upsets over Tennessee and Georgia. A win over a top-20 Georgia Tech team highlighted nonconference play. New coach Johnnie Harris and her impressive staff made good progress in Year One and came close to several more SEC wins – including a pair of near-misses against first round opponent and rival Alabama. Aicha Coulibaly has taken over from Unique Thompson as the team’s leading scorer, rebounder, and focal point. Guard Honesty Scott-Grayson is again the team’s second-leading scorer but can be up or down. In wins they’ve received contributions from Sania Wells, Annie Hughes, and Jala Jordan to go along with big games from Coulibaly and Scott-Grayson, and they’ll need some outside shots to fall.


Post Georgia 43 – Missouri 6: Slumber party

Wednesday November 10, 2021

We found out two years ago what can happen when a favored team sleepwalks into a noon game. It was one thing to get the team and fans ready for Arkansas with the unique spectacle that went along with that noon kickoff. It might have been asking a bit much to expect the same response on a chilly morning against a 40-point underdog. If this is the “get their ass ready to play” game of 2021, we’ll take it. Georgia started slowly against Missouri but quickly recovered to put the game away by halftime. The downfield passing game was key to opening this game up as Stetson Bennett connected on long passes to Arian Smith, Kenny McIntosh, and Jermaine Burton. The defense overcame some uncharacteristic mistakes to hold yet another opponent out of the endzone.

Welcome back

Georgia has reached far into its depth chart at times this season, and there has always seemed to be a “next man up.” Recruiting matter, and it has paid off when injuries or attrition hit. That attrition hit certain positions more than others, and where would this team be without Mitchell and McConkey stepping up at receiver? But those missing players were higher on the depth chart for good reasons. Georgia has had to make do without some special skill sets. Kearis Jackson came up with a big touchdown reception against Florida, and Arian Smith and Jermaine Burton had the highlights against Missouri. Kenny McIntosh, out for a few games midseason, reminded us that he might be the best receiving option out of the backfield. With Mitchell and McConkey gaining experience, Georgia is starting to develop a deep and diversified group of receivers just in time for the end of the regular season. That’s not even mentioning the tight ends…

First quarter snooze button

It seemed early in the season as if Georgia was capable of jumping on any opponent. The Dawgs established big first quarter leads on UAB, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and Arkansas with an impressive shock-and-awe style. Starts have been slower in the past four games, and Georgia even trailed briefly in two of them. It’s true that the competition has been a bit tougher in October, but the difference has been stark. The Dawgs have a total of 10 first quarter points in their most recent four games (AUB-MIZ) – they had at least 10 points in the first quarter of each of the four previous games (UAB – ARK). Georgia has also needed some pivotal plays to get going in these past four games:

  • Auburn: Nakobe Dean interception
  • Kentucky: Kendall Milton’s fumble recovery
  • Florida: (waves hands at the end of the first half)
  • Missouri: Fourth down conversion and punt block

Now I’m all for complementary football and commend the team for staying patient and composed until the floodgates opened. It’s easier not to panic when you have faith that the defense is likely to keep any hole from getting too deep. A greater urgency to score early might be called for in the next game: Tennessee has put up at least 14 points in the first quarter against four of its six SEC opponents to date (including Alabama.) A few field goals aside, Georgia hasn’t had to play from behind this year. A road game at Tennessee might not be the best place to try it.

There are bigger problems than quarterback

The offensive line was in the spotlight against Missouri. Two preseason starters, Ratledge and Salyer, were unavailable. The Tigers are second-to-last nationally in rushing defense, and it’s likely that only giving up 168 yards to Georgia moved them out of dead last. It’s true that Missouri keyed on the run, and Georgia made them pay with downfield passes. But opponents stacking the box is only part of the story. The lack of a push on Georgia’s second goal line situation was dreadful. Georgia’s rushing totals were augmented by 52 yards’ worth of end arounds to Kearis Jackson and Arian Smith. In other words, the tailbacks barely cracked 100 yards against the nation’s worst rushing defense. The offensive line was right up there with the secondary in the preseason as the top concerns for the 2021 team.

Georgia is second in the nation with only 5 sacks allowed. That’s great! Is it because of outstanding protection? Is it a reflection of Bennett’s mobility? Is it because Georgia calls relatively few, but highly effective, pass plays? Does Georgia call relatively few pass plays to scheme around Bennett, the offensive line, and the depleted group of receivers? There are a lot of chicken-or-egg questions about what Georgia is doing with its offense and quarterback this year. The results are hard to argue with: Georgia is first in the SEC in offensive yards per play, and the offense is 6th nationally in SP+. Let us never underappreciate Todd Monken.

Are we focused on the wrong problems? Both Bennett and Daniels are proven against top 25 competition. The debate about which one has a better chance of leading Georgia to a title tends to reveal more about how we perceive each of them. The decision about which quarterback to play doesn’t occur in a vacuum – the quarterback is one (very important) cog in the offensive machine. This Georgia team has had to deal with a fluid roster of available receivers. It’s also had to deal with inconsistent line play. It’s fairly easy to tell when the quarterback underthrows a deep pass or throws behind a receiver. It’s often tougher to tell when and how a protection breaks down. A capable coordinator might even anticipate the weaknesses in his protection and scheme around them. Coaches have to take into account the receivers and line when crafting a game plan and deciding which quarterback might best execute that plan. I mentioned last week that the return of several top receivers lessens the burden on the quarterback to do things on his own – we saw what happens when you can get the ball to Burton, Jackson, and Smith. I’m not so sure though that the offensive line situation will change very much, and that could influence how the staff handles the quarterback position into the postseason.

  • Travon Walker got people talking immediately in 2019 when he showed up on the kick coverage team against Vanderbilt. You don’t have to add the qualifier “for a defensive lineman” when pointing out how athletic he is. He’s simply a strong, quick, and agile athlete who, as we saw against Florida, is as comfortable laying out in coverage to tip a pass as he is fighting through offensive linemen. Walker had several standout plays against Missouri. With Adam Anderson out for the foreseeable future, Walker’s role should become even bigger.
  • I was so glad to see Jermaine Burton finally get into the endzone. He nearly had three touchdowns in the game but was twice stopped a yard short in the first half. Burton got a short screen early in the third quarter and got nice downfield blocks from Jackson and Mitchell for an easy score.
  • It’s difficult to break through such a talented group of tailbacks, but Daijun Edwards sure is a tough runner and had an explosive catch out of the backfield.
  • My favorite play of the game was a simple toss to Bowers on the sideline. His defender left a big cushion, and Bowers was put in the position of having a single man to beat. A devastating stiff-arm turned a short gain into a first-and-goal.
  • Georgia has done a great job of limiting broken tackles this season, but tackling wasn’t a strong suit against Missouri. Quarterbacks were able to escape for over 70 yards on the ground – above what Georgia’s run defense typically surrenders to the entire offense in a game. Those areas are of particular interest in the next game as Tennessee has a mobile quarterback and a proven ability to turn missed tackles into big plays.
  • Noting the issues tackling and containing the quarterbacks, the defense still held Tyler Badie to 41 yards a week after he put up 254 at Vanderbilt. Missouri’s passing game was also kept in check: even with a pair of deep passes on the final drive, the Tigers threw for only 152 yards.
  • Georgia’s aggressiveness on special teams has been a difference-maker this season. You wonder if future opponents will try to take advantage of that aggressiveness with some fake punts or placekicks. Missouri’s onside kick to start the second half caught Georgia sleeping coming out of the locker room, and the Bulldogs were fortunate that a penalty bailed them out.
  • Good experience for Kamari Lassiter who was targeted on two deep passes (with two excellent catches) on Missouri’s final drive. He was in position to make the play, and breaking it up will be the next step.
  • Again the greatest drama in the game was whether Georgia would yield a meaningless late score. This wasn’t the Florida game where the starters were still in there. Georgia’s coaches left it up to the reserves, and they came through with a stop that had both the crowd and the starters on the sideline energized. Missouri had an open receiver on fourth down, but pressure forced an errant pass.
  • Between the tributes to Mark Richt and my friend Cassie Moates, that was one of the more emotional halftimes I’ve ever been through. I can’t quite say I was ready for that, and I’m glad the game was more or less in hand by that point. Richt and Moates are two members of the UGA community united by their impact on the lives of others, and the recognition of that impact was obvious on Saturday.

Post Georgia 34 – Florida 7: Role reversal

Wednesday November 3, 2021

In the 2000 Georgia-Florida game, Georgia jumped out ahead and led 17-9 in the second quarter. The Bulldogs were driving just before halftime to extend their advantage. Then Lito Sheppard happened. Florida’s star cornerback stepped in front of a Quincy Carter pass near the Florida 10 yard line and ended Georgia’s scoring opportunity. Sheppard began weaving his way back through the entire Georgia offense evading tackles before he was finally brought down near the Georgia 25. The Gators quickly scored, added the 2-point conversion, and the game was tied at halftime. Georgia never recovered. Florida controlled the second half, and the game became just another Georgia Jacksonville loss in the dark 1990-2010 period.

Saturday’s 34-7 Georgia win didn’t have much in common with that 2000 game. But I remember how deflating that Sheppard interception was. Even though the score was still tied the glimmer of hope provided by the early lead evaporated, and anyone who sat through those editions of the rivalry knew what was coming. I thought about that glimmer of hope as the second quarter unfolded Saturday. Georgia led 3-0, but Florida intercepted a poor Stetson Bennett pass and had plenty of time to put points on the board. Georgia’s offense was struggling. There was an opening.

That hope was quickly ripped away by Nolan Smith. Smith first showed strength by taking the ball from Anthony Richardson as the Gator quarterback fought for yards. Smith then showed awareness and agility by picking off a tipped pass after dropping back in coverage. Georgia capitalized on Smith’s two turnovers with immediate scores. If Florida had any hope remaining, Nakobe Dean ended it with his own interception return to close the half. Florida fans, buoyed by the 2020 win over Georgia and a close call with Alabama this year, experienced the despair of Georgia fans in 2000: they had their chance, lost it, and the dominant team in the rivalry wasn’t going to leave the door open again.

The knockout punch

I don’t blame Dan Mullen for trying to get some points at the end of the first half. It would have been a quick answer to Georgia’s outburst, and it would have given Florida a lift and a chance to bookend halftime with scoring drives to get back in the game. A coach has to recognize when it’s just not meant to be, and that moment was Adam Anderson’s sack with 17 seconds left in the half. The Gators managed about 20 yards in six plays – hardly flying down the field to set up a score. Florida completed a four-yard pass to move the chains with 30 seconds left, but Anderson and Warren Brinson got to Richardson as the clock continued to run. Rather than see the writing on the wall and let the clock run out, Mullen called timeout with 17 seconds left and about 25 yards to go for a reasonable field goal opportunity. Richardson attempted another short pass to the sideline, and Nakobe Dean was ready for it. Mullen’s desperation to get some unlikely points instead led to the coup de grâce.

Cashing in

As much as the defense took things into their own hands at the end of the first half, the offense still had to get into the endzone. Had those turnovers resulted only in field goals (or, more accurately, field goal attempts,) the game would have remained much more in reach for Florida. Worse, had Georgia stalled in place outside the Florida 30 after Nolan Smith’s interception, it could have been a shot in the arm for Florida. Georgia’s offense moved the ball in the first half but saw their earlier scoring opportunities end with two field goal attempts and Bennett’s first interception. It took two well-executed plays to finally get touchdowns. The right side of the offensive line, Ericson and McClendon, were able to get into the second level and create a clean path for James Cook. Bennett followed an inexplicable interception with one of his best tosses that led Kearis Jackson away from his defender and just inside the sideline. The combination of the turnovers and Georgia’s quick-strike scores following each takeaway is what made that sequence an emphatic statement: complementary football at its best.

QB1

Starting Stetson Bennett in this game was defensible. Kirby Smart cited continuity, and that made sense if you remember that earlier decisions about the quarterback turned out to be made at the start of game week. J.T. Daniels might have been in great shape as Florida week went on, but during the bye week he was still working back into form. I was glad to see Bennett lead the team to a win in Jacksonville after the way the 2020 game turned. Bennett though didn’t do much in the game to have a permanent claim on the starting job. Of course the touchdown pass to Jackson was excellent. That’s what’s expected of the quarterback.

Bennett deserves credit for several plays on which he ran the ball, and there’s no question that Daniels wouldn’t have had the same results. Bennett’s improvisation after a botched handoff and a big gain after eluding Brenton Cox were special plays, and those moments make it compelling to leave him as the starter. Bennett’s mobility matters for two reasons: first is the attrition at receiver. Todd Monken’s offense is efficient at distributing balls to backs and receivers. But as those positions have taken losses this season, more of the playmaking responsibility has fallen on the quarterback. As Burton, Jackson, Smith, and possibly even Pickens return to the offense, you’d want the ball in their hands more often. We also have to consider that the offensive line still isn’t exceptional in pass protection. We don’t see it because Bennett’s mobility has kept more plays alive than someone else might, and Monken is able to scheme around that. It’s been our habit this season to visualize the offense with all of the pieces healthy and functioning, but Bennett has made it work with this group of receivers and this level of play from the line.

Again, the quarterback question is most glaring on third down when you’re more often to see obvious passing situations. Georgia was 4-for-9 on third down in this game after going 2-for-7 against Kentucky. Only one of those conversions came in the first half – that was a nice bit of creativity by Bennett to find Cook to move the chains. Two of the conversions were running plays on 3rd-and-2 or less. The fourth conversion was a designed Bennett run on 3rd-and-7 that showcased Bennett’s mobility. Georgia’s three offensive touchdowns all came on explosive first down plays. In other words, this wasn’t a game that added much to the “Third and Grantham” file. Others have mentioned Georgia’s low play total over the past two games. The opponents have had some long drives of their own, but Georgia’s difficulty keeping drives alive on third down also is a factor. It can’t be all boom or bust.

There’s no use predicting what will happen with the position going forward. Many expected Daniels to start or at least play at Florida. That expectation will continue week to week. There’s little doubt that Bennett can lead the team through the regular season. The implication is and always has been that the team will need a higher-performing offense in the postseason.

  • The end of the first half changed the game, but it was important to force a three-and-out to start the third quarter. Florida trailed Alabama 21-3 and later 28-16 before nearly coming back to win. They trailed LSU 21-6 in the first half and 35-21 in the second half before tying the game. The Gators were used to taking early punches but had shown the firepower to bounce back. Georgia’s stop to start the half let everyone know that they weren’t to give any ground back.
  • There are countless ways to look at the final three minutes of the first half, but I’m stuck on the versatility of the players on defense. Smith’s strip and recovery was a great individual play but came from his base position – an outside linebacker making contact near the line of scrimmage. But then Smith and Travon Walker dropped back in pass coverage to force the second turnover. Walker, a defensive end, dropped into the middle linebacker’s spot and laid out like a world-class goalkeeper to tip the pass. Smith, playing even further back, was essentially lined up as a star on the play. Nakobe Dean made his interception lined up as a cornerback on a running back that was split out wide. These elite defenders can be moved around such that there’s an answer for nearly any scheme or personnel group an offense might show.
  • Is it OK to suggest that Todd Grantham had a decent plan? Yes, Florida still had issues defending the same counter run that LSU exploited. Florida had less success with its pressure than you might expect, but Bennett’s movement had something to do with that. Still, Georgia didn’t have a touchdown drive that started on their own end, generated just three points for most of both halves, and turned it over three times. That might have been enough to make things interesting if Florida weren’t facing Georgia’s defense.
  • Our old nemesis, the wheel route, bit Georgia once early when Nolan Smith got crossed up. But that was the extent of the damage from that play and Florida’s gadget plays. Georgia’s defenders were in place and prepared for nearly everything.
  • Georgia’s last two opponents have been able to sustain long, late drives against largely the starting defense. It didn’t matter against Kentucky or Florida, but you can anticipate Georgia needing a late stop in the postseason (as in the 2018 SEC championship game.) The defense hasn’t really come up big in those moments since the Clemson game. They very well might not be tested again during the regular season, but it would be nice to see some scoreless fourth quarters.
  • It took the longest run of the season to get there, but congratulations to Zamir White for the first 100-yard rushing performance of the season. Georgia’s tailback rotation makes it difficult for any one back to rack up big stats. The Bulldogs had two 100-yard rushers at Missouri last season, and the Tigers are even worse against the run this year. We’ll see if White can pass the century mark again this week and if any of his fellow tailbacks can join him.

Post Are you hurt or are you injured?

Sunday August 29, 2021

It’s trite and obvious to point out that injuries will affect a team. Most of us remember the horror of October 2013 as a slew of injuries derailed a team flying high after wins over South Carolina and LSU. Most often, though, we think about those injuries in binary terms: is a player available or out? After 2-3 (or 4-6) weeks, they’ll be back. In worse cases, they’re out for the year.

Georgia’s a little banged up right now, and that makes them just like most any other program during preseason camp. Tykee Smith and Darnell Washington have joined a list that includes several receivers and starting center Warren Ericson. Many of these players will return in time for the opener; game week has strong healing powers. Others, like Smith, Washington, or even Pickens, will have recovery periods that will linger on into the season.

Returning to the practice field though doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s no longer an issue. Certainly Georgia’s outstanding medical staff wouldn’t clear anyone in obvious risk of serious injury, but there’s a lot of gray area between being unable to participate and a clean bill of health. Most injuries aren’t as cut-and-dried as an incapacitating ACL tear, and there are many varying degrees of “OK.” Few players are going to feel fresh as a daisy during the physical grind of camp and the season. For these players then the season becomes a struggle of managing their condition(s) while remaining available to play. It’s a constant reassessment of the famous “hurt vs. injured” standard.

You often don’t hear about it until well after the fact. Just about every offseason has a story (or several!) like this one:

Georgia inside linebacker Nakobe Dean underwent surgery to repair his torn labrum this spring….Dean revealed he actually played through the labrum issue for the majority of the 2020 season.

Dean probably looked just fine to you and me as he continued to develop into one of the best inside linebackers in the nation. But clearly he wasn’t in top form, and he probably wasn’t the only one. How players cope with these minor injuries affects not only their ability to perform; it also affects how coaches manage lineups and situations. Ericson might return in time for the season, but the true extent of his recovery will have a ripple effect up and down the line. Blaylock might be cleared to practice or even play, but can he ever perform at his pre-injury level? Turf toe is one of those injuries that seems minor but can linger for weeks, and it could hamper Arian Smith’s top-level speed.

Georgia’s situation isn’t unique – the rare exceptions are those teams and players not dealing with a spectrum of injuries. Limited playing time or even absences might not make much sense in the moment, and coaches aren’t always forthcoming with their reasons. It’s worth keeping in mind that 1) an injury isn’t gone when a player returns to the team and 2) many injuries we’ll never know about until well after the fact, if at all.


Post Not asking too much

Thursday August 5, 2021

When we tried to have a realistic look at J.T. Daniels’ Heisman chances, it boiled down to this conclusion: “Daniels would have to obliterate the Georgia record book and do things never before seen in Athens.” The high water mark for a Georgia quarterback remains Aaron Murray’s 2012 season: nearly 3,900 passing yards, 10.1 yards per attempt, and 36 passing TD. The stats of recent Heisman winners suggest that Daniels would either have to become a dual-threat quarterback capable of rushing for 1,000 yards, or he’d have to leave Murray’s 2012 passing stats in the dust. That doesn’t just mean break the records: Joe Burrow threw for nearly 5,700 yards and 60 TD in 2019. Mac Jones threw for 4,500 yards in 2020 in a shortened season – and didn’t win the Heisman.

Along the same lines, Blutarsky looks at the imperative to raise Georgia’s net yards per play (YPP). He clearly sets out the target for a team with playoff aspirations: “you’d better create a net YPP of 2+ if you want a realistic shot at the CFP (the four-team version, that is). And if you want to win, you’d better wind up north of 2.5.” What does that mean in practical terms? “Georgia probably has to bump its offensive YPP up a full yard over the 2020 number to make the CFP field this season, assuming it can maintain its defensive excellence.” Maybe a bit more context will help: “A 7.21 ypp would be the best in the program’s history.”

So there’s the simple challenge for Tood Monken and J.T. Daniels: perform at a level never before seen at Georgia. That sets the expectations fairly high, and it raises some interesting questions. What if Daniels matches or just barely surpasses Murray’s 2012 numbers? It would be a superlative season for a Georgia quarterback, but would it be seen as a disappointment? What if Georgia’s defense, and its secondary in particular, slips a little and yields, say, another half yard or so per play? Would we notice an appreciable gain on the offensive side? Would the pressure instead be on Monken to offset the difference and still come out with a net increase?

It’s good to put some concrete numbers behind our expectations beyond straight wins and losses. We recognize the need to modernize and increase the output of the offense to compete at the highest level; it’s why Todd Monken is here. Metrics like YPP, EPA, success rate, and explosiveness are important benchmarks to follow that let us know how things are going. We know, based on those metrics, what a successful team and offense looks like. If we want and expect Georgia to contend at that level, watching those metrics will be the equivalent of the world record line superimposed over an Olympic swimming or track event – is Georgia on pace, out ahead, or falling behind where they need to be?

The encouraging news is that while these numbers might be unprecedented at Georgia, several other teams have found multiple ways to get there. Georgia’s program bests, unless you’re talking about something like Herschel Walker’s output, represent good seasons but aren’t untouchable and should be surpassed if the talent and offensive system are what we claim they are.


Post SEC vs. the field

Sunday August 1, 2021

Blutarsky has often identified college football’s regional passion as one of its unique characteristics worth preserving. That point has always resonated with me, and it’s not hard to see the downside of an enjoyable fall distilled down and repackaged into a nationwide “who’s in?” made-for-television event.

The conference expansion dominoes that fell across the nation a decade ago established conferences less as regional blocs and more as convenient revenue-sharing arrangements. The Big 12 stretched from west Texas to West Virginia. The SEC added a midwestern school to its East division, and Colorado found a home with the Pacific coast teams. Air travel meant that the rough geographic borders that used to constrain conferences were anachronisms, and conferences could be structured more around markets, eyeballs, and media rights. And as Blutarsky also points out, this train left the station long before 2012: the addition of South Carolina and Arkansas to the SEC in 1992 that facilitated a lucrative conference championship football game showed the way.

Texas and Oklahoma are coming to the SEC, and this pretty much says why:

That’s a ton of cash. (Though, for context, it’s still around 15% of the new NFL media rights deal. Why stop now?) What’s more important is that it creates an entity on par with the NCAA itself. That doesn’t mean the SEC’s revenues will equal the revenue of all other conferences combined. The NCAA is a distinct organization and gets its revenue from things like media rights for the NCAA basketball tournament. It does mean that the SEC, along with its media partner, will have sufficient clout to influence not only the competition on the field but also how college football is presented, marketed, and discussed.

Those focused on football have wondered how the addition of Texas and Oklahoma will shift the competitive balance of the SEC. How will the conference be organized? Georgia has played Clemson more often than A&M since the Aggies joined the SEC. Adding teams under the current model would be ridiculous. I do like the pod system many have outlined for football. (I can’t imagine a good system for sports like baseball though that would rotate through the conference often enough.) We can expect changes to scheduling, and it’s not as if Georgia will be playing Texas and Oklahoma every year.

The bigger impact will come nationally as the rest of the college sports landscape will have to deal with an expanded SEC as a bloc. The Pac-12 is already rattling swords about the SEC’s effect on the playoff expansion to 12 teams. The Pac-12 itself might not have much to say about it, but we can expect coalitions to form that will attempt to check the SEC. Those coalitions might be formalized through the expansion and realignment of other conferences, or they might remain informal and shifting alliances depending on the moment. No one wants to answer to the SEC, and there are several schools and conferences that might – might – be effective opposition if they can find common ground.

Those who appreciate the regional roots of college football might be amused that one effect of SEC expansion will be an even greater focus on southern football. Even as the playoff and media coverage package the sport for a national audience, the product will have a decidedly southern bent. It’s a big geographic footprint, but much of what happens in college football will be defined by what happens from Oklahoma to Florida. Certainly there’s enough good football outside of the conference to remain relevant and competitive, but it’s not hard to see that the narrative each season will begin as which outsider can take down the SEC’s best. Expansion might even lead us to rethink what it means to be a conference champion. Surviving and emerging as the SEC champion would, to many, be as impressive and more important than winning a national title against the best of the rest.

Whether it’s previewing each season’s football national title race or pondering the future of college sports, the addition of Oklahoma and Texas will raise the same question: “the SEC or the field?”

One more small thing…another effect I expect from this expansion will be to shift the SEC’s center of gravity westward. By that I mean six of 16 schools will lie on or west of the Mississippi. Oklahoma and Texas have just a bit more presence and clout than Missouri or even Arkansas. The SEC’s Nashville-Atlanta-Birmingham center can’t help but feel that tug. One consequence I expect will be the rotation of the SEC football championship game. Even a more permanent event like the SEC baseball tournament could be forced to rotate. There are at least four major domed stadiums in the west (New Orleans, Dallas/Arlington, Houston, and St. Louis) capable of hosting major events, and Dallas seems the most obvious choice to host the occasional SEC championship. You can be sure they’ll try.


Post Happy NIL Day

Thursday July 1, 2021

Like it or not, the landscape of college athletics changed overnight. Laws in several states went into effect protecting the right of college athletes to earn money from their name, image, or likeness. The NCAA, pushed to the limit, adopted their own interim policy which will serve as a stopgap until legislation catches up. That day may never come – Congress is finding it difficult to find consensus, and we might just be left with a patchwork of state laws.

NIL is perhaps the cleanest solution the schools could hope for: NIL money isn’t paid by the schools, there aren’t employment issues, and there should be fewer Title IX issues. Athletes are now allowed to get what they can get from their personal brands just like any other person. Direct payments from the schools would have been much messier, brought along all sorts of regulatory questions, and cut out a large share of the NCAA membership who are barely solvent. The “Olympic model,” which is basically NIL, has been circulated for well over a decade. Schools and the NCAA could have been out ahead of this issue, but instead we have a last-minute acquiescence to look the other way while an inconsistent framework of state laws kicks in.

Georgia fans have been especially tuned into the NIL issue since the suspensions of A.J. Green and Todd Gurley. The draconian NCAA regulations and Georgia’s passive willingness to accept them had many of us beating the drum for NIL reform years ago. This new era won’t remove the bad taste left by those episodes; all we can do is say that it’s about time.

It will be fascinating to see what comes of this change. There will be an early rush as the market shakes out and determines value. Some will do well; others won’t. Some will build successful brands and set themselves up for a secure future, and others will squander the opportunity. Some will build brands that only tangentially have to do with their sport, and now they can monetize that following. Will there be locker room dynamics? Maybe – who knows? There will be some hilariously bad and cringe-y endorsements and branding. We’re here for all of it. That’s the way markets work, and none of it is reason enough to delay these rights to student-athletes.

Since there’s money involved, there’s also bound to be plenty of fraud and shady characters ready to prey on under-informed players and their families. Schools might not be facilitating the deals, but it’s in their interests to have a supporting role. Resources should be available to student-athletes to help them identify legitimate endorsement deals and stay within legal and regulatory guardrails. Many schools, including Georgia, have introduced such partnerships and programs, and hopefully more will follow. Businessman and NFL veteran Marshall Newhouse tweeted some good advice: get help to understand the state laws and school/NCAA rules that apply, thoroughly vet anyone who approaches you with a deal, and don’t lose focus. “The opportunities will come the more you shine.”

I’m particularly interested to see if and how recruiting changes. Do prospects have more incentive to remain closer to home where name recognition and brand value might be higher? Will prospects play fan bases off of each other to determine the most enthusiasm for their personal brand? Will we eventually see a decision based on what amounts to a legal bidding war? Fans are admonished to avoid communicating with or interacting with prospects on social media, but would it be a different story if they knew that buying that 5* prospect’s merchandise might tilt the scales? None of these prospects are beholden to a specific school’s compliance department yet – will this market be even more unregulated?

There are a million angles to NIL because it really is a fundamental change to the model of college athletics. Schools and the NCAA will still make a ton of money – these deals aren’t coming out of their vaults. Now, finally, the people who generate much of that revenue will get a taste of it and begin to realize the value that’s been there all along.


Post Framing the preseason Heisman hype

Thursday June 24, 2021

Excitement about the potential for the 2021 Georgia offense can only mean one thing: offseason talk about J.T. Daniels’ Heisman chances. The strong finish by Daniels and the Georgia offense, the number of weapons returning, and a full and normal offseason with Todd Monken have generated tremendous anticipation. With record-shattering offenses at LSU and Alabama in recent years, the hope is that Daniels could lead Georgia’s transformation into the next powerhouse offense. But would that mean a Heisman for Georgia’s QB1?

I can probably just link to this post from 2019 when we were having similar discussions about Jake Fromm’s Heisman chances as a senior. Things didn’t go well for Fromm or the offense in 2019, but the larger points stand. If you’re not a dual-threat quarterback, you must put up ridiculous numbers to be considered for, much less win, the Heisman.

How ridiculous? Not many pocket passers have won the Heisman over the past 15 years. Sam Bradford won in 2008 with only 47 rushing yards. Were Baker Mayfield and Jameis Winston considered pocket passers? Neither put up big rushing numbers but had decent enough mobility to make plays on the ground. In their Heisman seasons, those quarterbacks threw for over 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns. Bradford and Winston won before the RPO era and the unreal offensive production we’ve seen in recent years. Joe Burrow threw for nearly 5,700 yards and 60 TD in 2019. Mac Jones threw for 4,500 yards in 2020 in a shortened season – and didn’t win the Heisman.

The gold standard for quarterback production at Georgia remains Aaron Murray’s 2012 season: nearly 3,900 passing yards, 10.1 yards per attempt, and 36 TD. That was a productive and balanced offense that took Georgia to the cusp of the national title game.

Back to Daniels: Brent Rollins of UGASports.com framed the answer correctly in this video: “yes, but.” When you look at the stats of recent Heisman winners (or even those invited to New York) and compare them against Murray’s Georgia-best 2012 season, you realize what has to happen. Daniels would have to obliterate the Georgia record book and do things never before seen in Athens. As Rollins observes, it would also require Georgia to run a lot more plays, and a higher percentage of plays must be passes. The deep and talented backfield is going to put an upper limit on how pass-happy Georgia becomes. That’s not to say Georgia can’t and won’t air it out – we saw that evolution begin to take place last season. But if an opponent presents a soft rushing defense, Smart and Monken are just as happy winning with 16 pass attempts and 332 rushing yards as they did at South Carolina last year. They’d be foolish not to, and it would take an intentional shift in offensive philosophy to blow past Murray’s benchmark and put up modern Heisman numbers.

Rollins notes that the Clemson game could swing how the nation views Daniels. A big performance and perhaps a game-defining moment on that stage would make Daniels (or Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei) an early favorite, and it might be possible to maintain that edge with a consistently solid showing the rest of the year. After all, Trevor Lawrence never cracked 4,000 yards in a season and finished second in the 2020 Heisman voting. An unremarkable showing against Clemson, even with a Georgia win, would mean that Daniels would have to stand out in games against lesser opponents with fewer people watching. He’d either have to make it up with volume (outrageous stats) or with a defining performance in the few marquee games left on Georgia’s schedule (Florida.)

Lawrence’s career reminds us of another development to watch. After the Clemson game, Georgia should be favored in its remaining games. Any SEC game could be competitive, but you’d still expect some big leads and lopsided wins. If Georgia is in a number of tightly-contested games this year, Daniels probably isn’t having a Heisman type of season. If the Georgia offense does click, you can expect to see the playcalling shift towards the capable backfield in the second half. What’s more, the trio of Beck, Bennett, and Vandagriff could be doing the handing off late in games. Clemson so dominated the ACC that Lawrence watched his backups close out a lot of games. That hurt his numbers in terms of the gaudy stats Heisman voters like, but it kept him fresh and available for multiple runs into the playoff. I think that’s a tradeoff most Georgia fans would accept.


Post Impressive track and field hire focuses attention on Georgia’s facilities

Wednesday June 16, 2021

Marc Weiszer outlines the process and events that aligned to announce the accomplished Caryl Smith Gilbert as Georgia’s new track and field coach last weekend. The importance of the move isn’t lost on anyone – she’s Josh Brooks’s first hire, and she’ll be the first female head coach of a male team at Georgia. Smith Gilbert is looking for a step up in competition in the SEC, but it had to take more than just a new challenge to entice a championship-winning coach to leave one successful program for another.

Yes, Georgia – or most any SEC school – has the resources to outspend other programs for staff and facilities. But the trick is actually committing to put those resources to work. All of the parties in Smith Gilbert’s hire downplayed the facilities concerns that led to friction with the outgoing coach, but I think we can be certain that there were more than vague assurances made about Georgia’s future investment in the track program.

How can we be so sure? To get an idea of what Smith Gilbert was used to in terms of support, have a look at this. That’s a $16 million track renovation spearheaded by Smith Gilbert involving a significant private fundraising effort. The Spec Towns Track might be a nice neighborhood gathering place in Five Points, but it isn’t the showpiece of a multi-million dollar capital campaign. The common constraint at both USC and Georgia is the “landlocked” nature of their existing track facilities leaving little room for expansion. Georgia, though, does have options outside of the central athletics complex. It’s reasonable that a coach of Smith Gilbert’s standing would have to feel confident in Georgia’s willingness to put its resources to work.

We know that Georgia lacks a master plan for facilities, and Brooks revealed that developing such a roadmap is a priority this summer. “We’re going to take a deep look this summer into the next five to seven year plan for…all facilities,” Brooks said. “Softball, baseball, everything.” (It’s interesting and encouraging that baseball – another “landlocked” facility – would receive attention just a few years after a $12 million renovation to Foley Field.) Brooks was caught in a tough spot by not inheriting a long-term facilities vision, and that reportedly strained the relationship with Petros Kyprianou. But Brooks had to anticipate that the facilities question would come up while trying to attract a replacement for Kyprianou. Even if a more comprehensive master plan isn’t ready yet, Brooks knew about the pending change long enough to at least come up with a coherent and acceptable answer. The hiring of Smith Gilbert indicates that he was able to do so.

The hiring of Smith Gilbert was a strong first move by Brooks. She’d be an impressive addition under any circumstances, but it was especially noteworthy after the messy PR that followed the inability to retain Kyprianou. In a way, it strikes the same tone as Kirby Smart’s knack of having a bit of good news ready to go on the heels of a setback. The facilities issues raised by Kyprianou were legitimate (and, to be fair, were mostly out of Brooks’s control), but this announcement has done a lot in a short time to change the conversation. If a title-winning coach in a good spot has faith enough in Brooks’s vision and leadership to move across the country, maybe there’s hope.