“There’s nothing more that’s going to help me at the University of Georgia than winning a national title at the University of Alabama.”
I understand and respect Smart’s decision to stay on through the playoffs, but I can think of a few things off the top of my head besides a couple of Alabama wins that Georgia’s head coach could do which would be more beneficial to Georgia.
It’s typical for some chaos during a coaching transition, but Georgia has some special circumstances making this transition that much more hectic. Their new coach is still with his old team. The old coach immediately took a new job. New assistants have been named but won’t coach in the bowl game. We’re left with a hodgepodge crew of lame duck coaches and staffers who will be conducting bowl practices, and many of them will be coaching with their own futures uncertain.
The table below compares the three staffs – 2015, bowl, and 2016. We’ll scratch through a 2015 name when it’s confirmed that he’s no longer a part of the program. We’ll add to the 2016 list when official announcements are made.
Brian Schottenheimer (+QB)
John Lilly (+TE)
Jim Chaney (+QB)
Bryan McClendon (WR)
Thomas Brown (RB)
John Lilly (TE)
Rob Sale (OL)
Thomas Brown (RB)
Rob Sale (OL)
Steve Shimko (QB)
Olten Downs (WR)
Sam Pittman (OL)
Dell McGee (RB)
James Coley (WR)
Shane Beamer (TE/ST)
Jeremy Pruitt (+DB)
Kevin Sherrer (+ILB)
Tracy Rocker (DL)
Mike Ekeler (ILB)
Kevin Sherrer (OLB)
Tracy Rocker (DL)
Sam Petitto (DB)
Courtney Coard (OLB)
Tracy Rocker (DL)
Glenn Schumann (TBD)
Kevin Sherrer (TBD)
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He’s been Georgia’s quarterback of the future for about a year and a half now, and Jacob Eason reaffirmed on Tuesday that he’ll still enroll at Georgia in just a few short weeks. It’s pretty amazing that a top prospect from the opposite side of the country would stick through two coordinator/position coach changes and even a head coaching change. That speaks to many things, but it’s a special feather in the cap of Mike Bobo and Mark Richt to have built such a solid foundation in recruiting Eason that it could survive these events. They didn’t just sell Eason on themselves; it was the whole package – the school, the town, the current players, and even the other prospects considering Georgia.
It also speaks to Eason’s levelheadedness. He didn’t jump ship when Richt left or when the offense struggled in 2015. Many fans assumed that Eason wouldn’t stick through the Bobo departure and certainly not through the head coaching change. Yes, he considered his options. That was the prudent thing to do – it would have been foolish not to have had a plan B if Georgia went a different direction with its coaching and scheme. He covered his bases, gave Smart and Chaney an opportunity to make their case, enjoyed a visit with future and prospective teammates, and concluded that “it all got cleared up.”
And so he’ll enroll for spring semester and enter the competition at quarterback. I expect most fans will find spring practice both fascinating and frustrating. All eyes will be on Eason, but I’d be surprised if a 2016 starter emerges.
Then there’s the 2016 season itself. Most of us expect Eason to emerge as the starter, but when? Eason is fabulously gifted, but he’ll have plenty of bad habits to break and a much more sophisticated offense to learn. Even Zeier and Stafford – two quarterbacks similarly heralded – didn’t claim the job exclusively until October of their respective freshman seasons. Smart, with the experienced help of Chaney, will have to manage the transition while avoiding the distraction of a quarterback controversy. Public pressure to play Eason will begin as soon as Eason takes the practice field.
Ideally you’d want a schedule that allowed Eason to ease into the role. 2015 would have been a best case – two easier SEC opponents and two light nonconference games. That’s not the case in 2016 – Georgia starts the season against an ascendant UNC program and will play two SEC road games in September. The Dawgs will need a poised and capable quarterback right from the opener. Do you let Eason take his lumps with the hope that he’ll have figured things out in time for the trip to Oxford?
There have been a few recent developments that might affect Georgia’s quarterback roster. First, Oklahoma reserve Trevor Knight will be a graduate transfer and is considering Georgia. Knight’s track record might look a little too similar to that of Greyson Lambert: former starter, gave way to another quarterback, graduate transfer. Knight was more accomplished as a starter than Lambert though, and he might be a good player to have on the depth chart.
The second development is one reported earlier this week by UGASports.com($). With Brian Schottenheimer no longer a part of the program, Brice Ramsey might have a renewed interest in playing quarterback and could even play in the bowl game. It’s not unheard of for coaching changes to breathe new life into stagnant careers, and a player expected to start the 2015 season might jump at the chance for a fresh start.
The possibility is there that Eason could have a good enough spring and camp that the coaches throw him right into the fire against the Tar Heels. A more likely outcome is that someone else starts the season – be it Ramsey, Knight, or, yes, Lambert. Smart’s experience suggests that he’ll place an emphasis on ball control and a lack of mistakes, and that might not be the strengths of a true freshman. With a capable set of running backs and a good group of defenders returning, coaches will have to consider what attributes at the quarterback position give the team the best chance to win.
It was an impressive first press conference. He’ll have to get right to work assembling a staff and a recruiting class, but he’ll remain at Alabama through the playoffs. As with all new hires, time will tell whether Smart was a good choice, but it’s clear that those who set these wheels in motion after the Florida game got the guy they wanted. Now the hard part begins…
Georgia was selected for the TaxSlayer Bowl (formerly Gator Bowl) in Jacksonville. The game will be on Saturday January 2nd at noon with ESPN providing the broadcast. Bryan McClendon will lead the Dawgs into the postseason as the interim head coach. This is the first meeting between these storied programs since the 1983 Sugar Bowl where Penn State knocked off #1 Georgia 27-23 to deny the Dawgs and Herschel Walker the 1982 national championship. Dawg fans of a more recent vintage will recognize Penn State coach James Franklin whose Vanderbilt team upset Georgia in 2013 in Franklin’s final season in Nashville. If you need a score to settle, pick 1983 or 2013 – whatever works for you.
Penn State finished the regular season 7-5. The Nittany Lions have two wins over bowl teams – Indiana and San Diego State. Georgia’s win over Auburn was their only victory over a bowl team. After a 7-2 start PSU lost their final three games against a back-loaded Big 10 schedule.
Both teams will be going through transitions. Georgia of course will play without their 2015 head coach and both coordinators. Penn State dismissed their offensive coordinator after a disappointing season despite having NFL prospect Christian Hackenberg at quarterback. Freshman tailback Saquon Barkley has been the most consistent element of the offense. Still, the PSU offense has struggled due to a weak offensive line that’s allowed a glut of sacks and negative plays.
Ordinarily we’d relish the thought of Georgia’s pass rush going against a paper-thin offensive line and a pro-style quarterback who had been sacked 39 times in 2015. If Georgia’s seniors and NFL-bound juniors haven’t mentally checked out, this could be one nice last showcase for someone like Floyd or Jenkins. That’s a big if though – some stars mentally collecting NFL checks playing uninspired ball without their beloved coordinator could do more harm than good. Hopefully they’ll make the most of one final live audition for the scouts.
As good as Georgia’s pass rush could be, Penn State leads the nation in sacks with 44. Senior DE Carl Nassib is the Big 10’s defensive player of the year. He’s been limited down the stretch, but it’s expected that he will play in the bowl. Georgia looks to put up a little more resistance, allowing just 13 sacks in 2015. If Georgia’s seniors on the offensive line want a taste of what they’ll face at the next level, they’ll be going up against some top NFL talent on the Penn State defensive front.
So both teams feature stingy defenses and some big questions on offense. Predictions of a low-scoring game make sense. Turnovers, special teams plays, or an explosive play by a healthy Michel, Mitchell, or McKenzie could put Georgia over the top in a close game.
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If there’s a lesson here, it’s just business. Once Mark Richt was fired on Sunday, he was under no obligation to Georgia fans or even Georgia’s players. I don’t begrudge him (and definitely don’t blame him for) jumping at an opportunity to get away from the awkward situation that was on full display in Monday’s press conference.
Part of me is glad that Richt is taking the Miami job. It would have been nice to have had him around the program to continue his developmental and networking programs, but a figure that beloved and successful would have cast a long shadow. It was similar with having Vince Dooley around in the 1990s, but at least Dooley was the athletic director with the accepted chain of command that comes with the AD position and – more importantly – had left coaching more or less on his own terms.
I understand that it takes some time to process change, and the great man Richt is makes it even more difficult. But he has moved on, and so should we. If he hasn’t already, he’ll soon be on the phone to prospects to build Miami’s recruiting class. When that happens, he becomes the competition – perhaps not to the extent he’ll be going up against Florida and FSU and other ACC programs, but Miami and Georgia have frequently been involved in recruiting battles. Georgia has had some good results bringing players out of South Florida, and Richt will be attempting to lock down that area.
We wish him well and will always respect him and possibly even pull for him (especially against Tech!), but those well-wishes have to stop where his interests conflict with ours – and they will. I was and will remain a fan of Richt, but I’m a Georgia fan first, and Mark Richt no longer represents our program.
I wasn’t in favor of dismissing Mark Richt. I recognized that the investment in the program at the end of the 2014 season was going to take some time to begin to pay off, and I believed that Richt had earned the right to coach through that period.
The past few weeks have been a heavy case of deja vu. I remember standing in the parking lot tailgating for the Belk Bowl and the rampant rumors of retirement and whether the bowl game was a referendum on Richt dominated the conversation. With that game in hand, it looked as if Richt had “won.” The program received an infusion of staffers, reorganized the strength program, and it went out and spent money on an offensive coordinator – money that it oddly wasn’t willing to offer outgoing coordinator Mike Bobo. Even if these investments were made grudgingly after a semi-public showdown between Richt (with Pruitt as a proxy) and the administration, it still looked as if Richt had bought himself some time.
Yet less than a year later, here we are again. The program again stumbled in October, but by winning out (even if by the narrowest of margins), it looked as if Richt had steadied the ship. But there was still unrest under the surface. For different reasons, neither coordinator was on solid ground. The horrible experiment and gameplan for Florida with the division title on the line seemed to be the breaking point, and not even four straight wins to end the season could reverse a decision that had been set in motion weeks ago.
A justifiable decision
Even those of us who might disagree with the move must admit that there’s solid reasoning for it. It starts with titles, and there have only been a couple of division titles in a weak SEC East since 2005. Georgia’s performance against ranked teams – those it would consider peers – has dropped off in recent years.
Richt’s desire to become more hands-on with an offense and its quarterbacks was palpable in his Monday press conference, and it was no coincidence that some of the more mundane details that a CEO-style coach must manage were some of Richt’s weaker points as a coach. Roster management has long been an issue, and it was rare that Georgia’s best offenses synced up with its best defenses. Special teams, a strength of Richt’s first few teams, developed maddening inconsistency.
One of the more important administrative details a head coach must handle is assembling a staff. You can go all the way back to the decision to elevate Willie Martinez to defensive coordinator. You can point to the tumultuous years with Todd Grantham. Most recently Brian Schottenheimer proved to be the wrong choice to replace Mike Bobo – even those who expected Richt to stick around did so with the understanding that there would be more changes to the offense after just one failed season with Schottenheimer. A series of poor hires after 1997 brought down Jim Donnan much more quickly, and once again the composition of the staff proved to be a key factor in the downfall of another head coach.
A high bar
It isn’t just that Mark Richt had a career winning percentage of 74% or nine (and possibly ten) 10-win seasons. He’s dominated several of Georgia’s biggest rivals. His success against Tennessee and Auburn was more in line with Georgia’s historical performance against Georgia Tech, and he took the Tech series to a whole new level.
Fans might be accustomed to Georgia winning two out of three against UT and AU and nearly every Tech game now, but it would be a noticeable decline if any of these series returned to “normal.” (Though of course the new coach still has work to do to bring the Florida series back in line.)
Some of the more predictable reactions to the news have come from outside the program – the media and fans of other teams claiming to be shocked or even offended that Georgia would part ways with such a successful coach and great man. Those crazy Georgia fans with their unreasonable expectations. Let’s not pretend that many of these same pundits and reporters haven’t been pushing Mark Richt Hot Seat stories for so long and with such frequency that it became a running gag. Be surprised that Georgia finally pulled the trigger or be sad for the man, but don’t kid us that a move you’ve discussed and debated for over six years is suddenly beyond the pale.
Richt made it a point to draw from and highlight Georgia’s rich football tradition. Some of it was very visible – the Dawg Walk became the focal point of the game day experience. Other actions were less public but just as important. He brought back honorary captains to connect current players with some of Georgia’s greats. He made a big deal out of the Governor’s Cup and took that rivalry with Tech much more seriously than some fans might. Other new coaches, whether out of insecurity or ego, make a clean break to avoid being overshadowed by the past. Richt used Georgia’s legacy to help grow a championship program.
For the wins and losses, complaints and praise, it’s moments like this that defined Georgia football under Mark Richt and why many fans are having a hard time taking the news.
No one does it better than Georgia. Mark Richt made sure of that.
After over 15 years of hypotheticals, site selection, and other projects taking priority, the long-awaited facility, costing in excess of $30 million dollars, will begin to rise adjacent to the northeast side of the Butts-Mehre building after several months of site prep. The construction will disrupt parking and traffic for winter and spring sports in the area, so fans planning to attend basketball, gymnastics, baseball, tennis, and track events should be prepared. Construction is expected to continue through the 2016 football season, and even 2015 bowl practices could be affected. The football team will have to work around the construction, and practices will be relocated out to the Club Sports Complex out on Milledge after some improvements are completed there.
By now you’ve probably seen teams use a punt return tactic that uses a decoy to draw the coverage to the wrong side of the field. When executed correctly, it leaves the actual returner with a clear field ahead of him. If you haven’t seen it in action, this NFL highlight shows the Rams pulling off this decoy for a touchdown.
Seth Emerson reports that Georgia Southern attempted this play on Saturday. Mark Richt admits that “it would’ve been a touchdown.” But this would-be back-breaking return became a forgettable downed punt because snapper Nathan Theus recalled a coaching point from earlier in the season and broke off to cover the play. GSU’s returner decided to let the ball bounce instead, and we yawned and went to commercial break.
At the time Georgia trailed 14-7. I can’t imagine how devastating a special teams score on the heels of their defensive touchdown would have been.
You can see the return being set up here. Most of the blockers and a return man are drifting towards the GSU sideline. A lone GSU player is positioning himself towards the lower left of the screen where the punt is actually headed.
Even the camera is fooled. The shot focuses on the decoy return, but you can just see Theus’s helmet at the bottom where he’s recognized what was happening and had broken off to cover the real return.
On Georgia’s next punt, Theus was once again involved in recovering the fumbled punt. Only two weeks ago he made a fantastic individual play to push aside a Kentucky return man and recover another botched return. Those were both significant plays in those wins, but this disastrous play that wasn’t could wind up being the senior’s biggest play.
By now we should understand that, for better or worse, this is Georgia’s team. The formula hasn’t changed much since the Missouri game. I expect that this was how the coaches hoped the Florida game would go. Georgia quickly ditched the Bauta experiment for a wildcat package, but the plan is the same: run, manage, defend, win. It’s worked in three out of four games.
Greyson Lambert’s final pass attempt was a failed screen to Michel right after that weak pass interference call on Malcolm Mitchell. These were the second and third plays of the fourth quarter. I saw some fans complaining about the conservative playcalling after Jenkins forced the fumble, but it was evident that there was no way the coaches were going to risk a pass, especially with a lead and a reasonable chance to extend that lead to ten points. For the second straight week we heard talk of two quarterbacks seeing action, but again when faced with a close game and a defense performing well, the coaches stayed the course and trusted Lambert just enough to see things through.
Auburn lacked that patience, and it cost them. Though the Tigers struggled to pass the ball in the first half, they were at least competent moving the ball on the ground. Only one of their first half drives failed to reach midfield. Their quarterback shuffle in the third quarter was intended to spark the passing game, but it took away the one thing they were doing well. By the time Jeremy Johnson returned, Auburn was playing from behind without any momentum.
That second half quarterback experiment was red meat held in front of Georgia’s defensive front. It’s been an up-and-down season for the heralded outside linebackers – some injuries, some position uncertainty, and some things we’ll probably never hear about. But as a unit, this was possibly their best game of the season. There have been better individual moments – Jenkins at Vandy, Floyd against Missouri. Floyd, Jenkins, and Carter all performed well at Auburn. Carter’s forced fumble was nearly a carbon copy of Jarvis Jones’ game-saving play against Florida in 2012.
That same defense had a rough start but found a way to keep Georgia in the game. Georgia couldn’t possibly survive a high-scoring game, but it looked as if things were headed that way after Auburn scored with relative ease on their opening drive. It was the first touchdown the defense has allowed in the first quarter all season. The defense, aided by a fantastic acrobatic interception by Parrish, kept Auburn from tacking on more points while the offense sputtered along. Holding the Tigers to three just before halftime proved to be significant. Climbing back from 14-3 would have changed Georgia’s approach to offense in the second half (and might have even resulted in the quarterback shuffle we saw from Auburn.)
It was that ability to plug away that stood out. The team remained tough and determined. There weren’t the second quarter implosions that changed the Alabama, Tennessee, and Florida games. The defense did enough, the offense and special teams avoided mistakes, and finally Georgia was able to flip the game in the third quarter.
I’m still impressed by the number of things that went Georgia’s way in this game.
Auburn had only lost two fumbles entering the game. They doubled that on Saturday.
Auburn also enjoyed a much better turnover margin on the season than Georgia, and they had widened that margin recently after a poor start. Jeremy Pruitt’s defense has now scored six takeaways in two seasons against Auburn. This year’s three weren’t flukey bobbled snaps – Parrish’s INT, Jenkins’ sack, and Carter’s strip were all turnovers created by outstanding individual plays.
According to Mark Richt in his Tuesday press conference, “only four punts (had) been returned on (Auburn) all year. They’re doing a super job on placing the ball in the right spot as far as their punter and their kicker and also doing a great job of covering those kicks.” McKenzie had just enough of an opening to set up a return, and he made the most of it.
Lambert, not known for his running, converted a 3rd-and-3 with a 13-yard scramble that kept alive Georgia’s only offensive touchdown drive. Lambert earlier took a sack on a 3rd-and-1 play-action pass, but this bit of improvisation prevented another third down disaster right after Georgia was forced to use a timeout.
Georgia had the better game on special teams. Davis’s fumble on the first kickoff had things off to a rocky start, but that was the end of the special teams drama. Morgan’s kicks were true. Kickoffs didn’t reach the endzone, but they were covered well with only one returned beyond the 25. Punting was consistent and pinned Auburn deep a few times.
Mark Richt has now won 10 out of his 15 games against Auburn and 8 out of the last 10. For a contested rivalry that’s been as even as this one for over a century, that kind of advantage for Richt over Auburn is one of his top accomplishments.
The most puzzling coaching decision of the game was Auburn bringing zero pressure against Ramsey’s punt from the endzone. This was Ramsey’s first punt in these circumstances since he took over, and Auburn chose to not put any heat on him. Perhaps they were hoping for their own big return, and they did end up with decent field position, but there wasn’t much of a downside to going all-out for a block there. The payoff would have been points or at least a much shorter field and valuable time saved.
Georgia’s decision to stick with Ramsey in that situation was itself an interesting call. Barber of course has much more experience with punting from any spot on the field, but Barber also has some bad experiences with punts from the endzone (Bama this year, Tennessee 2013). Ramsey did well, pressure or not.
The LSU-style quick toss in close quarters (like the one Michel fumbled on second down at the goal line) isn’t a bad call per se, but I do question it when the recipient of the toss has one good hand and a cast on the other. Do you really gain that much over a straight handoff?
Is the shotgun with one yard to go just an admission of defeat?
The offense actually moved the ball at the beginning of the game. They left points on the board at the goal line and missed another opportunity that Morgan salvaged with a field goal, but Georgia controlled possession after Auburn’s initial score. The plays that stalled those drives though were dreadful.
I’m glad to see it get mention on other sites – Douglas’ run on 3rd-and-forever seemed futile, but how important did that field position end up being?
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It’s no surprise to Georgia fans, but Tennessee has had to answer for the condition of its field after recent home games against South Carolina and North Texas. Maybe they’ll have it figured out before Georgia’s next visit in 2017.
I see two teams trying to do the same thing – establish early leads with the run and force the other team to play from behind with the weaker part of their offense – the passing game. Each team will try to get there with different tactics: Auburn will push tempo and use plenty of option. Georgia will be more deliberate and pro-style but will still show some of its own option look with the newly-installed wildcat package. Both teams would prefer to use the passing game as a counter-punch whether through play-action or as an option on a packaged play.
Most of us wrote off last week’s win because of Kentucky’s swan dive, but it really was the best blueprint for a win going forward. Get out on top, turn things over to the defense, let the running game wear down the opponent and build the lead, and put the offense in the hands of a quarterback who’s less likely to turn it over. Georgia isn’t built to win many games if things unfold differently.
Before the Kentucky game coaches talked about seeing time for both Lambert and Ramsey, and we did see both in the first half. But as it became obvious that the defense could keep Kentucky off the board and that the running game was starting to break longer runs, Lambert was the only quarterback used. Coaches seem to believe, and I tend to agree, that Lambert is least likely to make the mistakes that could erase a carefully-crafted lead. That might be damning with faint praise, but isn’t that what most “defense + Chubb” preseason analysis boiled down to? We’re hearing the same talk of multiple quarterbacks this week, but the flow of the game will affect who we see. If Georgia again gets a lead and is running the ball well, I expect Lambert to remain in the game to manage the lead. If Georgia’s in a hole, that might be when we throw caution to the wind and see more of Ramsey.
Georgia’s offense certainly isn’t built for the three-touchdown comeback we saw in 2013. We’re not going to win a shootout in the 30s without a lot of help from defense and special teams (as at Tennessee.) The Georgia defense was overwhelmed by this offense two seasons ago before making just enough stops in the second half to facilitate the comeback. But that was a different defense and a different coordinator. The Dawgs didn’t exactly stop Auburn last year, but they made enough plays and forced enough turnovers to allow the offense to pull away. The Dawgs only posted 123 passing yards on 19 attempts last year, and that’s exactly how they’d like things to look on Saturday.
Auburn is probably a little better structured for a comeback. They’ve already come back from 14 down at Arkansas to force overtime. Passing is definitely the weaker part of their offense, but they do have the ability to go vertical and find Louis downfield. They’ll also try to stretch the field horizontally with quick receiver screens and jet sweeps as elements of their option. A good tackler like Parrish could be poised to make some big plays on the outside.
The ideal offensive strategy for each team seems to play into the strength of the opposing defense. Georgia has been better against the run (Tennessee notwithstanding), and Auburn’s defensive line has a couple of legitimate stars in Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson. Each team has welcomed back an injured defensive lineman – Lawson has made a huge difference over the past two games, and Chris Mayes played a significant role in Georgia’s shutdown of Kentucky. Speaking of Tennessee, I wonder if Malzahn doesn’t try to get Jeremy Johnson a little more involved in the running game after seeing what Dobbs was able to do to Georgia. Johnson has only run the ball 26 times for a net of 75 yards this year, but he is second on the team in rushing touchdowns.
It will be a much more difficult challenge for Georgia’s shuffled offensive line. The crowd noise will be a factor, though the noon kickoff beats a later start. Georgia’s tackles were abused by the Auburn outside rush two years ago, and Lawson will present another tough assignment wherever he lines up – especially if it’s opposite Wynn who will be making just his second start at left tackle. That dominant Auburn line two years ago took away the run, but the Dawgs more than made up for it a year ago in Athens with 289 yards on the ground. Last year it was Gurley and Chubb chewing up yards on the ground. Now Michel, Marshall, and even Godwin, Hicks, Douglas, and others will hope to have similar results.
The spring retirement of Andy Landers shook the women’s basketball nation. One of the country’s winningest coaches and a member of the sport’s Hall of Fame stepped aside after 36 seasons. The announcement of assistant Joni Crenshaw (now Taylor) as Landers’ replacement came as a surprise – not because she was unqualified but because of her role in a Georgia program that had started to slide the wrong way.
Now as the head coach Taylor must draw from and build on the deep tradition of the program while giving it a fresh and energetic new image. She’ll have to rebuild the talent level of the program and convince elite recruits, especially from the state of Georgia, to come to Athens. With established and ascendant contenders plentiful in the SEC and the region, it will be a big challenge to build the kind of roster that would have Georgia back competing for SEC and national honors. She’ll be asked to do it while maintaining the academic and character standards that were a hallmark of the program she inherits.
Taylor is under immediate pressure to keep one long-standing program streak alive. Georgia hasn’t missed back-to-back NCAA Tournaments since 1980 and 1981, Landers’ first two seasons. That kind of streak shows what the expectations are here. Taylor, a member of the staff since 2011, understands those expectations and has embraced them. Her no-nonsense style has helped her establish authority with the returning team and assured that there won’t be any slacking off in accountability just because Landers has stepped aside.
Georgia lost two fan favorites to graduation. Forward Krista Donald and guard Erika Ford were important contributors during their four seasons, and the Lady Dogs will especially miss Donald’s toughness inside. Ford was a streaky shooter but became instant offense when she was on. That kind of production – the defense and rebounding of Donald and the scoring of Ford – is what you expect to lose from four-year veterans, but they leave vacant some significant roles.
Two other players no longer appear on the roster. Forward Nasheema Oliver missed most of the year with an injury and transferred to Georgia State during the offseason. Guard Jasmine Carter struggled with recurring symptoms after a couple of concussions, and I wouldn’t blame her if she hung up the sneakers.
Georgia welcomes three new faces to the team. Shanea Armbrister is a 6’2″ JUCO transfer wing who is expected to help the offense. She’s picked up international experience over the past two years representing the Bahamas and had over 15 PPG to lead her team to a gold medal at this summer’s Caribbean Basketball Confederation Championship. Unfortunately she’s battling knee issues and probably won’t be available until later in the season.
The lone frontcourt signee is 6’3″ Caliya Robinson from Marietta, a top-50 national recruit. Robinson can bang inside and rebound but also run the court and score with the jumpshot. Like Armbrister, Robinson has been limited by a past knee injury and might be limited early in the season. The Lady Dogs do have a bit of frontcourt depth, but they’d like to bring Robinson along this year as Hempe and Barbee prepare to graduate. Former coach Andy Landers called incoming guard Amber Skidgel a “pure shooter.” She’s a three-point specialist who will help Georgia’s perimeter game but must work to round out the rest of her game.
Four seniors highlight a deep returning cast. Point guard Marjorie Butler enters her second season running the point. Shooting guard Tiaria Griffin will be a key player on offense and must improve her consistency and ball-handling. Forwards Merritt Hempe and Shacobia Barbee were sidelined for significant stretches last season, and the team missed them. Hempe missed several weeks battling mono and returned for the postseason. Barbee was lost for a longer time with a broken leg, and the Lady Dogs went 2-9 down the stretch without her. Barbee had emerged as the team’s top scorer, rebounder, and defender, and that production was never quite replaced. Hempe likewise was making strides as a junior before her illness. She’s become a potent inside scoring threat but must avoid unnecessary fouls, especially away from the basket.
Georgia returns several experienced underclassmen as well. Mackenzie Engram had an immediate impact as a freshman and ended up starting seven games. Her versatility will be counted on again. Halle Washington is Georgia’s other interior option and made progress during Hempe’s absence. Like Hempe, foul trouble has proven to be Washington’s nemesis and will be the chief obstacle in the way of continued development. Haley Clark saw time as a freshman backing up Butler at the point and even earned a few starts. She was able to push the tempo a bit more than Butler, and tempo has been one of the points stressed by Coach Taylor during the preseason.
Strengths and weaknesses
The continuity of the four seniors is this team’s biggest strength. Taylor will have a built-in leadership group for her debut season. Barbee is a potential all-conference player, and Hempe or Griffin could carry the team on a given night. The team will be strongest up front with Barbee, Hempe, Engram, and Washington. If the posts can manage foul trouble, and especially if Caliya Robinson can contribute, Georgia could prove formidable inside.
One key question is at point guard. Butler can be steady but deliberate running the point. If Taylor wants to push the ball, Butler will have to work faster than the tempo with which she was most comfortable last year. Clark showed promise but still looked very much like a freshman. Her offseason development will determine Taylor’s options running the offense. Either way, offensive production from the point guard position must increase.
For several seasons the biggest challenge for the Lady Dogs has been scoring points. They’ve tried to compensate with defense, but eventually you must score. The shocking 26-point output against Auburn last season was the low point, but many of the same players will be tasked with turning it around. Barbee will likely be the focal point, but the team needs more balance from outside. The team has hovered around 28-30% from behind the arc for several seasons, and the three-point shot has been too big a part of the offense with a percentage like that. Skidgel will have her moments off the bench, but much of the backcourt production will have to come from Griffin and Butler with Barbee, Engram, and even Hempe occasionally stepping outside.
Ideally, the team would prefer to generate easier transition baskets through pressure defense. That was the formula that took Andy Landers to the Hall of Fame, but the team has gotten away from it. Fouls, depth, and simply ability led Landers to use more zone, and even the most active zone won’t produce the transition opportunities that a good press will. Taylor’s ability to get the team’s style of play turned back around will determine how different this season is from the past several. Whether she has the personnel to play her preferred style is a big uncertainty though.
Georgia will be tested immediately in the nonconference schedule. Within the first three games, the Lady Dogs will travel to #24 Michigan State and host rival Georgia Tech. There’s a Thanksgiving tournament in California and then an important early December home game against Seton Hall. The rest of the nonconference slate is manageable, and only a trip to Wright State will break up a long homestand that takes the team into conference play. Including SEC foes, Georgia will play a total of six teams ranked in the preseason AP poll.
The SEC rotation sets up so that Georgia will play South Carolina and Tennessee just once. Unfortunately each of those games is on the road, so Lady Dog fans won’t have an opportunity to see the top SEC contenders in Athens. The Lady Dogs will have home-and-home SEC games with Florida, LSU, and Missouri. The conference schedule is book-ended by some tough opponents: Texas A&M and Kentucky will be two of the first three SEC opponents. South Carolina and Tennessee appear at the tail end of the season.
The SEC Tournament will be in Jacksonville for the first time. South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas A&M, and Mississippi State were picked by the coaches to finish 1-4 in the SEC.
SEC media and coaches predicted a ninth-place finish for the Lady Dogs. That’s where they finished last season, and it implies an SEC record around or just below .500. That’s usually marginal for an NCAA Tournament bid and often on the wrong side of the bubble. This is as meaningless as any preseason poll, but it does serve to help set expectations: ESPN’s preseason bracket does not include Georgia. In that light, a return to the postseason would seem to exceed expectations. But in the context of Georgia’s tradition, it’s almost an imperative. Failure to reach the NCAA Tournament would put the program in a position it hasn’t known in over 30 years, but earning a bid and returning Georgia to the postseason would be an important feather in the cap for a coach who needs every advantage she can get to make an immediate impact on the recruiting trail.
As with last season, the in-conference performance will make or break the season. The nonconference slate, even with a couple of tougher opponents, lends itself to a good record entering SEC play. A .500 record or better in the league should get the Lady Dogs into the postseason. Things were headed in that direction last season before the injuries hit, and Georgia’s core should be good enough to get them there this year without another onslaught of setbacks.
When the line for this game was announced last Sunday, I asked if “17” was the over/under rather than the point spread. It was only half in jest – Missouri’s strength on defense and weakness on offense have been pretty well established at this point in the season. We saw both of those tendencies hold on Saturday. Missouri’s offense sputtered even more than Georgia’s, and the Tiger defense was as stout as advertised.
But as good as the Missouri defense was, Georgia’s was better. You would hope that the defense would show up against one of the SEC’s weaker offenses, but we were just a week removed from allowing an anemic Tennessee passing game to look like Baylor. We have to take improvement when we can get it, and ensuring that a struggling offense continues to struggle represents improvement. It was one of the best performances of the season from the front seven, and enough plays were made in the secondary to prevent the few Missouri successes across the middle from building on each other.
As for the Bulldog offense – Georgia dominated time of possession, ran 82 plays to just 52 for Missouri, and had twice as many scoring opportunities. Following two weeks of dreadful third down performance, the offense converted at a much more respectable 47%. So why only nine points?
The most obvious answer is that the Dawgs failed to finish drives. The offense was far from shut down. We didn’t see nearly as many three-and-outs as in the past couple of weeks, so at the very least the offense was able to help the team with field position. Missouri’s average starting field position was on their own 28.8, nearly 8 yards worse than Georgia’s – and that includes Missouri’s short fields as a result of the interception and onside kick. Georgia’s four field goal attempts were from inside of 40 yards.
The other thing working against the offense was a lack of explosive plays. There was a mid-range pass that Godwin turned into a long gain, but that was about it. (And Georgia came away with nothing on that drive.) Michel was tripped up on the few runs that looked close to breaking open, and for the first time this season there was no Georgia tailback galloping for a huge gain. Georgia’s longest run of the game was 12 yards by Marshall. Not many deep passes were attempted, and Davis’s apparent injury on the opening kickoff might have something to do with that. Missouri’s pressure caused Georgia to use shorter passes like receiver screens, and Missouri’s physical cornerbacks prevented those from turning into small gains (and several losses.) With Georgia forced to move down the field in small chunks, it only took one penalty or failed conversion to end those drives and scoring opportunities.
No one is going to (or should) crow about the aesthetics of the game or feel very positive about the offense in a post-Chubb world. Still, after two miserable weeks, the win is a good note on which to enter the bye week. Georgia should have some players returning from injury, and they’ll have two weeks to think about an opponent that showed them up on both sides of the ball a year ago (not to mention special teams.) A defense that is as committed to tackling and pressure as Georgia showed on Saturday can give you a chance to win. The offense though hasn’t contributed more than 17 points since the Southern game, and the next defense they’ll see isn’t far from the one they just faced.
Oh, that Leonard Floyd.
The body paint in the student section spelled out the hashtag “#MISERY.” I don’t think they intended to serve as game commentary.
As impressive as the Georgia defense was, two of the biggest tackles came from Georgia receivers. Kenneth Towns hustled to save a touchdown on Missouri’s interception of Lambert’s first pass. The four points saved as a result of his effort and the subsequent defensive stand turned out to provide the winning margin. Malcolm Mitchell, subbing in on the punt team after Sanders was ejected, delivered a perfectly-timed hit on the return man to force a fumble that flipped field position and led to Georgia’s tying score.
The ejection of Sanders (I couldn’t disagree after seeing the endzone angle) not only cost the defense their best defensive back, it also put a lot more pressure on the freshmen. Abram held his own, and Briscoe made several important plays. McGraw’s first half coverage of a slant pass was textbook.
We have three more years to stop calling him “Abrams.”
It’s frustrating when the “correct” play call is wrong. If the defense is going to send seven or eight guys, then, yes, those quick receiver screens should work (as should other countermeasures.) But they must be blocked, and Georgia couldn’t handle two of the SEC’s more physical cornerbacks. These are the kinds of plays that Georgia needs to be able to execute with consistency in order to make the defense pay for selling out against the run. But since Georgia couldn’t block with any kind of success on the perimeter, Missouri was able to defend those screens effectively while still crowding the line of scrimmage.
Missouri ran the speed option a couple of times to test Georgia outside. The Dawgs were ready each time, though it helps that the quarterback wasn’t a big threat to keep the ball.
It wasn’t a perfect game for the special teams, but the mistakes weren’t backbreakers. Coverage teams had their best games of the season. Godwin was a pleasant surprise returning punts and gave Georgia decent field position on several second half drives. Even the onside kick was a good idea with the execution coming up just a little short. The space was wide open. Fortunately the defense made that error forgettable.
I can’t be the only one who had a bad feeling about a squib kick after Morgan’s go-ahead FG. But Georgia kicked it deep, covered it well, and the defense got after the Missouri quarterback. It was a good feeling – there was plenty of time left, but neither the Georgia defense or the Missouri offense gave you much reason to worry that the Tigers could throw the ball into position to tie the game. They did come uncomfortably close to converting that fourth down pass though along the sideline.
Earlier this summer Glynn County officials sent word across the state that they’d be cracking down on underage drinking, littering, disorderly conduct, and similar violations during the annual influx of students known as “Frat Beach” during the Georgia-Florida weekend. Trashed beaches – and trashed students – got to a point where the local government felt the need to respond.
Whether because of that crackdown or more general apathy towards Georgia football and the Florida game, there’s definitely been an immediate impact on the local hospitality industry. The Brunswick News reports that hotel reservations for the weekend are down by as much as 30 percent from 2014. The CEO of the Golden Isles Convention and Visitors Bureau claims that “In the past, we are usually at 100 percent occupancy by now…hotels that are usually sold out by now still have up to 40 rooms available.” The vacancies even extend to beach properties.
So good news if you’re still looking for a place for the WLOCP. But Golden Isles businesses who depend on that weekend for a little shot in the arm after the summer tourist season might be reconsidering how much frat they are willing to tolerate on their beaches.