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Post 2014 Georgia football preview: When last we left them…

Wednesday August 27, 2014

September 28, 2013.

On a picture-perfect day in Athens, Georgia had just knocked off the #6 team in the nation. The team, and its star quarterback, were the toast of ESPN’s Gameday. Neither fans nor players, recognizing the glory of the moment, wanted to leave the stadium. With a grueling September that featured wins over LSU and SEC East favorite South Carolina, the Dawgs looked to have put a narrow season-opening setback at Clemson behind them and reestablished themselves in the national conversation. An emotional Mark Richt, with the opening month and far more important things weighing on him, summed it up: “No one does it better than Georgia.”

If the preseason consensus was correct, Georgia had passed its toughest tests and had become the frontrunner for a third straight SEC East title. But that spectacular day in September proved to be the peak and not the launching point. The injuries had already started piling up. The top receiver and now top tailback were out of service after the LSU game. That was just a preview of the attrition that left Georgia depleted across the offense and eventually cost them their starting quarterback. A young defense never really came together, and fans were glad to see the once-celebrated coordinator head elsewhere. Even the schedule didn’t go according to plan. Missouri and Auburn were better than expected, and the Dawgs ended up playing the SEC Championship participants after Georgia’s tough September.

As much as we’d like to forget the 5-4 finish to the 2013 season, I’ll want to take four things from it. There’s the improbable game-tying drive at Tennessee which featured two true freshmen tailbacks and a reserve receiver in a must-score situation on the road. Any win over Florida deserves celebration, and this one was the third win in a row in a series that was going the other way for far too long. Even with the game’s sickening finish, Murray was at his best and toughest in the comeback at Auburn in what turned out to be his last complete game. The comeback overtime win at Tech was a nice way to end the regular season and deny our in-state rivals the win they thought was in the bag.

But those bright moments aside, it was an end of the season we’d rather not remember. It was fitting that the bowl game was an uninspired and forgettable loss – by that point most of us were beyond ready to put the season behind us and start over. Within days of the bowl the entire defensive staff had turned over, and Georgia introduced a new coordinator who almost overnight got moping fans excited again about the future of the program.

The arrival of Jeremy Pruitt (and, soon after, three new defensive assistants) had an immediate impact on recruiting as Georgia secured a small but top 10 2014 signing class. Pruitt and his new staff made a number of defensive offers right up to the end, and Georgia assembled nearly a quarter of its signing class in the 10 days leading up to Signing Day. The biggest late catch was in-state defensive end Lorenzo Carter. Carter favored Georgia, but he could name his school and wavered during the coaching turnover. The addition of Pruitt and Tracy Rocker to the staff was enough to assure Carter, and he’s expected to play and contribute right away.

Spring practice was fairly uneventful as the new defense was installed. The offensive line and secondary emerged as concerns, and they remained two of the more unsettled areas right through August’s preseason camp. The story then became about attrition, especially on the defense. A coaching change often brings about some departures, and Pruitt’s no-nonsense approach butted heads with even some established starters. Safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and cornerback Shaq Wiggins left and ended up at Louisville. Safety Tray Matthews was dismissed and will play for Auburn. Most recently, defensive lineman Jonathan Taylor was dismissed. All four were expected to contribute in 2014, if not start, and the safety position in particular has had to adapt. To add to the trouble, six Georgia players accounted for seven arrests over the offseason.

Once the dismissed players are removed from the roster, Georgia only has a couple of players suspended for the start of the season:

  • Receiver Justin Scott-Wesley is out for at least one game due to a marijuana arrest. He’s still working his way back from a serious knee injury, so his exact return is still up in the air.
  • Linebacker Davin Bellamy will miss the first two games due to a DUI arrest.

Georgia made it through preseason camp with mostly minor injuries. Unfortunately Malcolm Mitchell had a setback with his knee and will miss at least the opener. A concussion cut short the career of Merritt Hall. Yes, Chris Conley has a shoulder that is going to bother him. Yes, Ramik Wilson had a concussion that has stirred up some drama at his position. But the usual preseason knocks aside, the team is in fairly good health heading into the opener.


Post Final approach for the Jacksonville Landing?

Monday August 25, 2014

It’s almost a rite of passage for those attending the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, but the days of the Jacksonville Landing might be numbered. In coordination with a plan to revitalize downtown Jacksonville, the owners of the Landing have presented a vision that includes tearing the place down and replacing it with a development that has more emphasis on apartments and residential space than it does restaurant and retail. Of course they’re after public money, and the plans could change once all stakeholders have their say. Still, a popular Georgia/Florida gathering place and landmark seems to be in for a big change.


Post Turning the page to 2014

Monday August 25, 2014

It’s game week! As we turn the page from 2013 to 2014, Georgia has some big questions heading into the season. Who’s going to play in the secondary? Can the defense turn it around under a new coach? How will the holes be filled along the offensive line? Not much good will happen without positive solutions to those problems. Other than fewer visits from the injury bug, what are some of the more specific changes we’ll be looking for from 2013 to 2014?

Can Hutson Mason start games as well as he’s finished them? It’s a small sample size, but it’s taken the Georgia offense a while to get going in both of Mason’s starts. Tech surprised Georgia on both sides of the ball before the Dawgs managed a score just before halftime, and it took well into the second half before Georgia mustered a touchdown in the bowl game. This was occasionally an issue for Murray due to nerves, and Georgia’s first two 2014 games will be nothing if not hyped and emotional. If the offense is supposed to be the strength of the team, it can’t take its time before showing up.

Will Collin Barber be back in form? Barber has been a solid punter, but he wasn’t quite the same after taking a brutal hit on a blocked punt at Tennessee. Barber averaged an impressive 46.75 yards per punt over the first five games in 2013 but only 40.8 yards per punt after the Tennessee game. After a poor outing at Auburn, Barber was replaced by Adam Erickson for the rest of the season. With so much of the special teams under scrutiny this offseason, we haven’t talked much about punting. We hope we never have to punt the ball, but we’ve seen how much of a weapon a strong punter can be and how much an inconsistent punter can cause problems for a struggling defense.

As good as the linebackers are, they’ve struggled defending the pass. Will that remain an exploitable weakness, or will Pruitt fix it?

Can the team sustain a setback? The middle of the 2013 season was a Jekyll and Hyde experience for Georgia’s defense. The defense actually helped the team build double-digit second half leads against Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Florida. That defensive success proved fragile, and each game had a very clear turning point that eventually put Georgia’s lead at risk and saw some good defense turn into bad rather quickly. The 2014 defense can show improvement in many areas, but one of the most important might be developing the ability to overcome a turnover or special teams mistake that could swing momentum back to the opponent.

Can Pruitt really be transformative? Of course Georgia’s new defensive coordinator has the freedom to remake the defense as he pleases. He’s left his mark on the hiring of positional coaches, and he’s taking on an exhausting audition of talent to construct the 2014 secondary. The hiring of Pruitt though implied more than just improvement on the defensive side of the ball.

There’s a hope that Pruitt will leave as much of a positive impact on Georgia’s culture as he does on its defense. It’s what was behind the pining of so many fans for Kirby Smart, and the success of Pruitt’s last two programs gave him instant credibility with Georgia fans. To put it crudely, we want some of the success of those programs to rub off on Georgia.

Agents of change can face resistance, and Georgia has some very established ideas about how to handle everything from academics to discipline to recruiting. Importing cultural change has big risks, especially in a field where large egos are the norm. This is still Mark Richt’s program, and it will ultimately reflect his core ideals and values. That doesn’t mean Richt must be inflexible in all areas, and we’ve already seen some subtle changes – most visibly in the higher numbers Georgia seems to be targeting for its 2015 signing class. To what extent will Pruitt (and the new assistants) be able to nudge the program towards its championship goals, and how much of that change can show up on the field in 2014?


Post A better way to improve the in-game experience

Tuesday August 19, 2014

While Georgia prepares for an assault on the senses, Baylor is harnessing technology to offer visitors to its new stadium an application featuring “in-seat mobile video replays, team information, customized camera angles and up-to-the-minute real-time statistics.” The application will “(push) the envelope by being the first college athletics app to provide instant replays from multiple views.”

Baylor’s app will be backed by the same high-capacity cellular distributed antenna system installed in Sanford Stadium over the offseason but also a free high-density wi-fi network.

I’m a little ambivalent about too much mobile technology in the stadium – I’d prefer fans be engaged in the game rather than buried in their phone or tablet. At the same time, real-time access to replays and stats on a high-speed network fills a need I would bet all of us have wished for at Sanford Stadium one time or another.


Post They haven’t even had their first 3rd-and-long yet

Monday August 18, 2014

Grab the popcorn. Via SI

Bobby Petrino says he’s changed. But in reporting a story about the new Louisville coach that is in SI’s college football preview, it appears Petrino is still just as difficult to work and play for. Sources with ties to the Cardinals’ football program and Petrino said there’s significant friction between Petrino and feisty defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. The two have feuded often since Grantham’s hiring in January.

So much that one source insists Petrino would have already gotten rid of Grantham if not for his guaranteed five-year contract that pays him nearly $1 million annually. He came to Louisville after four seasons as Georgia’s defensive coordinator. “He’s stuck with him,” a source said.

Worth reading also for the introduction to Todd Gurley’s golf game.


Post SEC Network channels for Comcast Atlanta

Thursday August 14, 2014

Kudos to the guys at Good Bull Hunting for putting together this comprehensive guide for the SEC Network launch.

Unfortunately Comcast, one of the largest launch partners, didn’t announce their SEC Network channels in advance, and the channels will vary by market. The network will appear on the launch date (today), but it’s left for us to hunt and spread the word ourselves.

In Gwinnett County, the SEC Network can be found on channels 300 (SD) and 792/1738 (HD). I can’t confirm the channels for any other Atlanta-area Comcast franchisees, but try those channels first.

UPDATE: From the comments: “It is 804 and 805 alt. plus 310 and 311 in Asheville NC”

UPDATE 2: SicEmDawgs is putting together a roundup of channel locations across the state of Georgia for all carriers.


Post 2014 game day experience improvements

Wednesday August 6, 2014

Georgia announced today some changes and enhancements to the Sanford Stadium experience for the 2014 season.

There’s news about concessions (Sonny’s…ugh) and where you can cool off during the warmer games.

Fans should notice improved cellular service throughout the stadium. Service providers, especially AT&T, have installed millions of dollars worth of equipment to handle the flood of demand during games.

The biggest change is a controversial one. The sound system has been improved. That’s good news. But Georgia will also be taking advantage of new SEC rules that allow schools to pump in music and artificial noise at almost any the ball is not in play. Georgia promises to “respect the collegiate atmosphere and traditions.” We’ll see how far that respect goes.


Post One step closer to an indoor practice facility

Wednesday August 6, 2014

In September Georgia’s Athletic Association board of directors will consider an indoor football practice facility.

The idea of an indoor facility has been on the table since the Donnan years, so what finally got it on the agenda? When we looked at the pros, cons, and questions associated with the facility last year, this was the conclusion: “If you’d like to see an indoor facility, the good news is that there aren’t many higher priorities remaining.” Georgia’s coaches and administrators had given higher priority to other projects several times when funds became available, but this time there isn’t much else at the top of the list. Athletics director Greg McGarity explained, “It’s always been on our project sheet. We basically have priorities on that sheet. Some move up quicker than others.”

Even if the board decides to go forward with a facility, there are several specifics to be hammered out. These three questions cover most of them:

  1. Where will it go?
  2. What’s the scope (and cost) of the facility?
  3. Who will pay for it?

The location seems to be pinned down to the soccer/softball complex out on Milledge Ave. Ideally the facility would be adjacent to the on-campus practice fields, but there just isn’t the room. Neither the outdoor practice fields nor the track will be sacrificed for the facility. I had wondered about the vet school property with its large new campus set to open soon, but it looks as if most of the current vet school buildings will remain in use. So Milledge it is.

The scope is a little less certain, but $15 million is the number we’ve see most often. What does $15 million get you? For comparison, this is what Auburn got for $16.5 million in 2011. Clemson’s 2013 facility ran about $10 million, complete with videoboard. Virginia recently completed a similar facility for about $13 million.

Mark Richt’s initial vision called for a much more ambitious complex with offices, a weight room, a dining hall, and an indoor track. The price tag for that kind of project would have been well over $30 million. How would a scaled-back $15 million facility square with Richt’s vision? Much of what Richt wanted was accomplished with the $40 million Butts-Mehre expansion completed in 2011. From a football perspective, all that was missing was a 120-yard covered field. Georgia’s indoor facility won’t need many extras.

McGarity is clear that the athletic department won’t be footing the entire bill for whatever comes of this discussion. As with the ongoing Foley Field renovation, some level of private donations will have to be raised before athletic department funds kick in. “There will be a fundraising piece to this,” McGarity said. If the board does decide to go forward with the facility in September, expect those who have been calling for an indoor facility to be asked to show just how important it is to them.


Post Dawgs #12 in preseason coaches poll

Thursday July 31, 2014

Two more signs that football season is right around the corner: players report for preseason camp today, and USA Today released the preseason coaches poll.

Georgia’s 8-5 finish left them outside of the final 2013 poll, but they’ll begin this year ranked #12 by the coaches. The Dawgs started 2013 ranked #5.

Georgia is one of seven SEC teams ranked among the top 25. The Dawgs are scheduled to face three ranked teams (#5 Auburn, #9 South Carolina, and #16 Clemson), and four other opponents (Florida, Missouri, Arkansas, and Georgia Tech) are among those receiving votes.


Post Offense brought to you by the letter H

Thursday July 31, 2014

Tyler asked a good question earlier in the week: “Why do we keep listing Quayvon Hicks as an H back?”

The role of the fullback has been on our radar for several years since we learned in 2011 that former tight end Bruce Figgins would be moved into the backfield. Figgins never really strayed from the typical fullback role, but his move started a discussion about the fullback’s place in a more diverse offense beyond good ol’ 344-Fullback.

Since then it’s been a rough time for fans of the fullback. Kyle King noted after the 2011 season that production from the position had been falling. When Brendan Douglas arrived last year, we wondered if he wouldn’t find his own niche in a crowded backfield. The injuries at tailback made any experimentation a luxury in 2013. Mike Bobo explained yesterday that Georgia in 2013 was a “one-back team 74 percent of the time,” trading a fullback for a third receiver.

So once again it’s preseason and we’re talking about a new way to use a former fullback.

The difference this year is that the coaches are talking about it too. The H-back has more or less been idle fan speculation – daydreaming about the best ways to use someone like Figgins. Now it’s a position mentioned by coaches, and there even seems to be a plan behind the position. Two players are now allocated to the position, and the staff has put thought into how to split the training between the tight end and backfield coaches. With that information, Tyler’s hunch about some tweaks to the offense seems to have been spot on.

No, it’s not going to be a dramatic change in scheme or an every-down look. As Bobo notes, there will still be a need for the power sets with a true fullback, and hopefully a healthy Jay Rome and Jordan Davis can fill the traditional tight end role that has been so important for Georgia under Mark Richt. It won’t even be the first time we’ve seen Hicks involved as an offset fullback or tight end – watch this play-action pass against Clemson. Not bad. (Incidentally, note the respect for Gurley by the Clemson defense on that play-action that opened so much room for Hicks.)

So why didn’t we see more of that? We were all excited for Hicks and his distinctive facemask after some big plays early in the season, but he was used less and less afterwards. From October on, Hicks had just two carries and three receptions. He ended up starting only six games and didn’t touch the ball in the final four games. A big reason behind his dwindling role had to do with blocking. As Bobo explained, “His issue sometimes blocking has been out in space, which causes him not to fit up properly.” You can see what Bobo was talking about on the blocked punt at Tennessee last year.

With another player added to the position and a more structured approach to coaching the H-back role, we should expect to see the role featured more often in the offense. How often will depend on the readiness of Blazevich and Hicks’s ability to develop consistency and clean up the details that kept him off the field in 2013.


Post We tried to help, Tech

Monday July 7, 2014

Blutarsky points to an AJC piece about Tech’s increase in ACC money while dealing with a projected shortfall in ticket revenues. The reasons for that shortfall?

A projected slight drop in season ticket sales, six home games (as opposed to seven) and the even-year schedule without a home game against Georgia are primary factors.

When we learned in 2012 that Georgia would face back-to-back games at Auburn in 2012 and 2013, one idea that came up was shifting the Tech series. Georgia would maintain a schedule that alternates between Auburn and Tech at home. But there was also a win for Tech.

Tech’s current home schedule in even years stinks on ice. Look at it. What’s the best home game there? Virginia? Miami? BYU? There’s nothing close to what you’d consider a rivalry game. There are few, if any opponents with large groups of road fans. Now look at an example of an odd-year schedule for Tech. Carolina. Virginia Tech. Clemson. Georgia. From a Tech perspective, that’s relatively loaded and a lot easier to sell….The issue then is how badly Tech wants to balance its schedule.

But that plan meant that Tech would have sacrificed the 2013 game in Atlanta for consecutive trip to Athens. That didn’t happen. As a result, Tech is stuck with its six-game home schedule featuring Clemson, a Miami fan base that doesn’t travel, and little else. You can’t say we didn’t try…


Post First 2014 ticket cutoff scores announced

Monday July 7, 2014

Speaking of demand for football tickets, Georgia has released the first pass of cutoff scores for 2014. While most of the big road games won’t be announced for several weeks, there are some interesting things to note:

  • After a few seasons in which all new donors received renewable season tickets, there is once again a cutoff score for new applicants. “Hartman Fund donors with 1,001 priority points who contributed a minimum of $250 per seat and ordered renewable season tickets will receive them.” Georgia hasn’t had a cutoff for new adjacent renewable season tickets since 2010.
  • There are no adjacent pairs of non-renwable season tickets this year. We don’t know if that means individual season tickets might be available, but we usually see an announcement about that later.
  • Auburn, Tennessee, and Clemson – to no one’s surprise – lead the demand for additional home tickets. There wasn’t even a cutoff for additional Auburn tickets.
  • Arkansas is a hot road ticket. The Dawgs have never played in Little Rock, and so Arkansas joins Florida and South Carolina as games whose cutoff score is still to be determined.

Post Dawgs top SEC secondary market ticket prices

Monday July 7, 2014

Thanks in large part to high demand for Clemson tickets, Forbes and TiqIQ claim that the Bulldogs have the highest average secondary market ticket price among SEC schools. The average secondary market price for a Georgia football ticket this year is $227.01 – making Georgia the only SEC school with an average price over $200. An average price of $359.26 for the Clemson game leads the way.

If you put your bottom line-driven athletic director cap on and look at those numbers, Georgia’s leaving a lot of money on the table with a $40 ticket face value. The difference between that primary price of $40 and the secondary average of $227 is going mostly to brokers, scalpers, and ticket holders rather than into the UGA coffers.

Other schools are starting to recapture some of the gap between face value and the secondary markup with higher overall ticket prices and variable pricing for premium games. Georgia’s still a relative bargain at $40 per ticket and $280 for the season, but you can be certain that discussions are underway in Athens. For perspective, A&M and Auburn season tickets are $450.

We’ve already seen Georgia sign on to higher prices for the Florida game, following a nationwide trend of premium prices for neutral site games. It’s a risk – with the at-home experience more and more appealing, demand for tickets can become increasingly sensitive to price. It’s one thing to see the opportunity with a good 2014 home slate, but will fans be as willing to pay premium prices for a 2015 schedule that offers little more than Alabama?


Post Malcolm Mitchell – poised for a comeback?

Thursday June 26, 2014

The Dr. Saturday site recently ran a series on the top five offensive players poised for a comeback in 2014. Their choices are fine, but the category immediately brought one Georgia player to mind: Malcolm Mitchell.

Mitchell’s freak injury just minutes into the 2013 season, but his entire career has been plagued by fits and starts with injuries and position changes keeping him from putting up the numbers you’d expect from the team’s most talented receiver. When healthy and on his game, he’s among the best receivers in the nation. His catch rate (how often a receiver catches passes thrown his way) was well over 70% in both 2011 and 2012. It was a whopping 79% on passing downs in 2011.

That kind of dependable target certainly contributed to Aaron Murray’s rise, but Mitchell (along with Tavarres King) gave the Bulldog offense something else: a downfield threat. As Jon Gruden observed, “Nobody throws the ball down field better than Georgia.” Murray was a big part of that downfield attack, but you have to have the targets. As Georgia’s receivers began to fall during the 2013 season, the vertical element of the passing game dwindled to the point where they didn’t even try to go deep at Vanderbilt.

Justin Scott-Wesley stepped up well enough in 2013, until his own season-ending injury, to maintain that vertical threat after Mitchell went down. Freshman Reggie Davis had his moments, but it would have asked a lot of a rookie to take on a larger role. The lack of a vertical passing game that was so glaring at Vanderbilt returned in the bowl game and made things that much more difficult for Hutson Mason.

On an offense with such a high-profile tailback and a very visible quarterback transition, it’s fairly easy to question the impact of a receiver who’s only had one 100+ yard game since his freshman season in 2011. Durability will naturally be a concern as injuries hit Mitchell early in both 2012 and 2013. It’s encouraging to hear that Mitchell (and some other key returnees on offense) are doing well and participating at full speed. We’ll still be holding our breath with every daily preseason injury report.

We were excited about seeing Mitchell last season in his first year completely dedicated to receiver, and we’ll double down on that this summer. His combination of reliability, explosiveness, and what he brings to the downfield element of the passing game will open up a lot of things for the rest of the offense. There are several important players poised for a 2014 comeback – even Gurley if you look at it a certain way – but few who can bring so much to the offense.


Post Dawgs and Domers – it’s on!

Wednesday June 25, 2014

Georgia and Notre Dame announced a home-and-home series today that will take place in 2017 and 2019. The teams will play in South Bend on September 9, 2017 and in Athens on September 21, 2019.

No big deal…just another ACC school, right?

It should be a high-profile matchup between two of the nation’s traditional powers who have only met once before. It looks as if the first meeting would be on the second week of the season. You’d expect Georgia to open up with a lightweight home game and then get into conference play after they return from South Bend. If the current SEC schedule holds, that might mean a back-to-back stretch with Notre Dame and South Carolina. The 2019 game in Athens is likely on the fourth week of the season. That allows for everything from an easier nonconference game to, again, South Carolona, to a bye week before the Fighting Irish come to town.

We’re excited about it, but it’s still going to be worth keeping an eye on the changing winds of the college football landscape between now and then. If, for example, the SEC moves to nine conference games, would Georgia seek to get out of the series? AD Greg McGarity has stated how strongly that ninth game would affect his outlook on these high-profile nonconference games. Today’s news is a very public commitment along the lines of an 11-year SEC scheduling rotation, but I’ll believe it when we see the 55,000 point cutoff announced in 2017.