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Post Fromm is perfect for Georgia but not a Heisman candidate

Thursday July 11, 2019

Jake Fromm is an outstanding quarterback and the best possible person to lead Georgia’s offense. He’s beaten out and held off two higher-rated quarterbacks because he does exactly what Kirby Smart and the staff ask of him: run the offense efficiently, make plays to sustain drives, and avoid critical mistakes. He’s been a leader from the moment he took over from Eason, and he’ll likely be a high draft pick when he chooses to leave Georgia. The Dawgs aren’t going to go far this year without Fromm playing at least as well as he did in his first two seasons.

With that said, he’s not going to win the Heisman. Put another way, if Fromm is even in the Heisman conversation at year end, something has gone very, very wrong with Georgia’s offensive identity.

Individual moments of excellence are part of any Heisman season, and it doesn’t hurt to be on a winning team. Fromm checks those boxes. Fromm’s stats last season were more than respectable: 67.4% completion rate, 2,761 yards, 30 TD / 6 INT, and 9.0 yards per attempt. They’re comparable to the stats from his freshman campaign in 2017 during Georgia’s run to the national title game. But compared with the ten most recent quarterbacks to win the Heisman since Tim Tebow in 2007, those numbers aren’t competitive.

These ten Heisman-winning quarterbacks have met one of two criteria:

  • Gaudy passing numbers: 6 of the 10 threw for at least 4,000 yards in their Heisman seasons. Half threw for over 40 TD.
  • Dual-threat ability: 7 of the 10 rushed for at least 699 yards in their Heisman seasons. 7 accounted for at least 10 rushing touchdowns.

Of course most of them showed some combination of the two – that’s why they stood out over everyone else. All threw for at least 3,200 yards except for Cam Newton, and he made up for it with 20 rushing TDs and nearly 1,500 rushing yards. All rushed for at least 5 TD except for Jameis Winston, but he passed for over 4,000 yards and 40 TD. Kyler Murray set a ridiculous bar with over 4,300 passing yards, 1,000 rushing yards, and a total of 54 touchdowns.

Heisman quarterbacks are expected to be at least a credible threat to run the ball, and Fromm hasn’t shown that to date. Oh, he’s not a potted plant and has the vision and creativity to move around the pocket. But in two seasons, he has a grand total of 52 rushing yards and 3 rushing touchdowns. Last year he had zero rushing touchdowns and negative rushing yardage. And that was with a five-star quarterback on the bench behind him. With an unsettled backup situation in 2019, how willing do you expect the staff to be to call many designed runs for Fromm?

If they’re not going to create Heisman moments on the ground, quarterbacks have to put up head-spinning numbers through the air. Sam Bradford only rushed for 47 yards in 2008, but he threw for over 4,700 yards and a whopping 50 touchdowns. Baker Mayfield had 311 rushing yards in 2017 but passed for 43 TD and over 4,600 yards at a completion rate over 70%.

With Fromm’s rushing stats, he’d have to have about 75% more passing yards and 15-20 more TDs this year than in either of his first two seasons to get into Bradford territory. Does that sound like Georgia’s offense? The Dawgs might have a new offensive coordinator, but there’s no chance that Kirby Smart will prefer anything but heavy doses of Swift and the other backs behind one of the nation’s biggest and best lines. (*) If Georgia is as successful as we hope they’ll be, think about how infrequently the Dawgs pass the ball when they’re salting away a comfortable second half lead. Consider also the amount of production gone from the receiver and tight end positions, and it might be an impressive feat just to approach 3,000 yards through the air.

Enjoy Jake Fromm for what he is and appreciate his mastery of his role on this team.

* – Is Swift a more realistic Heisman candidate? Georgia’s recent tailbacks haven’t been Heisman finalists largely due to how well-rounded the group has been. Sharing carries and production has been great for the team and the endurance of the individual backs, but no one back has been able to pile up huge numbers. That might change a little this year depending on how much Zamir White can contribute or whether Cook, Herrien, or McIntosh can prove themselves worthy of splitting carries with a healthy Swift.


Post Preseason pessimism? In 2019?

Thursday July 11, 2019

Preseason magazines have been out for weeks or even months, and we’ve had time to digest how the pundits view the Dawgs this year. (Short answer: pretty good!) Most expect at least another SEC East title, and more than a few have Georgia back in the playoffs. In practical terms, that either means an undefeated regular season (making the outcome of the SECCG more or less irrelevant) or an outright SEC championship. Not a bad year in either case.

We’re in that brief lull now between Independence Day and Media Days, the unofficial start of football season, so maybe it’s a good time for one last sober look at things before the preseason news machine really gets going. Seth Emerson’s got things started off with a painful reminder of some of the close calls and what-ifs ($) of the past decade. We’ll see whether this team joins that list. I’m actually pretty high on the team’s prospects, but it’s worth going through position-by-position and looking at some of the potential stumbling blocks that we would look back on as reasons why the 2019 team didn’t meet expectations.

Injuries go without saying, and all bets are off with a 2013-style epidemic. Still, Georgia is deep enough at some positions to weather the inevitable injury, and occasionally an injury can open the door for a younger player who just needed an opportunity. At other positions, depth *is* the story, and we’ll be sweating the health of a couple of starters all season.

Quarterback: With D’wan Mathis’s availability in question, Georgia’s quarterback depth is as precarious as it was last season. The difference is that you’re replacing Justin Fields with Stetson Bennett. Bennett has experience in the Georgia system but hasn’t seen more than mop-up duty. He’s earned the respect of teammates, and it’s likely he would have earned the backup role over a true freshman even if Mathis were cleared to play. Still, Georgia hasn’t had this much uncertainty in its backup QB since maybe 2015.

As for Jake Fromm, is there anything left to prove after two seasons at the helm? He’s been outstanding within Georgia’s system, and he improved his production and efficiency last season while maintaining a solid 9 yards per attempt. Fromm hasn’t been asked to do much more because, let’s face it, the run-heavy system has worked much more often than not. Has Fromm had his defining moment yet? I’ll always come back to this amazing play against Oklahoma or the pass to Wims that set up the winning FG at Notre Dame. This year I’d like to see Fromm put things on his shoulders when things aren’t going so well in the running game. Defenses will challenge him and the passing game by selling out against the run, and it will be up to Fromm to elevate an inexperienced but talented group of receivers. Let’s put it bluntly: Georgia hasn’t managed a point or even a drive longer than 28 yards in the fourth quarter of the past two games against Alabama. Can Fromm and the Georgia offense find a way to close out their biggest games this year?

Tailback: I can’t even feign pessimism about Swift, so we’ll focus on what would come after. Herrien has proven to be a solid role player especially as a receiver out of the backfield. James Cook turned heads in practice as a true freshman, but he found it tough to earn carries outside of garbage time behind Holyfield and Swift. Cook is also coming off ankle surgery. Kenny McIntosh is the lone incoming freshman – a big, physical back with purported pass-catching skills. Then there’s Zeus. Zamir White’s ability to come back from two ACL surgeries is the bellwether for how comfortable many fans feel about the running game. If he’s close to full strength, Georgia will have yet another formidable duo with considerable depth behind it. If not, the Dawgs will have to hope Herrien takes a big step forward as a senior, Cook turns the corner, or McIntosh is ready to go out of the gate.

Receiver: Graduation and the draft took its toll on the receiver position. Fortunately sophomore Jeremiah Holloman emerged as a favorite target in 2018. That would be reassuring if Holloman hadn’t been involved in an alleged domestic violence incident that led to his dismissal from the team. Without Holloman Georgia’s returning receivers accounted for just 12 total receptions last season, and nine of those were by Tyler Simmons. Two tailbacks (Swift and Herrien) had twice as many receiving touchdowns in 2018 as all of the returning receivers and tight ends.

Simmons and Trey Blount shouldn’t be overlooked especially when it comes to their important roles in the running game. Both were on the field as blockers in the Rose Bowl on the unforgettable winning play. Georgia has added size and speed at the position in the past two recruiting classes with multiple top-100 prospects, and of course Demetris Robertson is lurking there waiting to make an impact after a year in the program. Is Robertson’s adjustment period a cautionary example for the incoming talent? How long will it take them to get up to speed in the offense, and how physical are they willing to be on the perimeter? It might be enough just to ask freshmen to run the right routes, but you don’t get explosive running plays without downfield blocking.

Tight end: If you thought the receiver position was depleted, the tight ends invite you to hold their beer. Attrition leaves Georgia with only one returning scholarship tight end: senior Charlie Woerner whose career 25 receptions, 298 yards, and zero touchdowns by default make him a top returning target in the passing game. Georgia has added a graduate transfer (with 8 career receptions) but will otherwise fill out the TE depth chart with freshmen – one of which is coming off of knee surgery. Will Georgia have to dip into its deep OL talent pool to shore up the TE spot?

Offensive line: The OL is usually one of the more anonymous units on a team, but not at Georgia. Its position coach is a superstar, there are likely high NFL draft picks at both tackle spots, and there’s enough depth stockpiled that former five-star prospects will be fighting just to get on the field. Georgia’s line is its strength and its identity. So why should anyone be worried about the offensive line?

The 2018 LSU game is worth examining. LSU made adjustments after Georgia showed some success on the ground and was able to frustrate Georgia at the line of scrimmage. “Orgeron said the key adjustment involved changing up the defensive fronts, creating different angles, with Aranda expertly mixing in different personnel to create problems for the Bulldogs.” Not many teams had the talent LSU had up front, but those who do can use scheme to attack Georgia’s size up front if the Bulldog coaching staff isn’t prepared to make adjustments of their own. Texas had similar success getting into the backfield.

You also want to see the line step up when it’s time to get physical and the defense is expecting the run. No line is going to dominate when teams send more bodies than you can block, but it was incongruous to see Georgia’s offense struggle to punch the ball in down around the goal line. Until the passing game with all of the new receivers proves itself, expect this line to face stacked defensive fronts. The ultimate test for this line: Georgia hasn’t rushed for more than 4 yards per carry in the 2017 and 2018 losses to Alabama. It’s a tough ask to get the better of the good defensive lines of Auburn and Alabama, but this line (and its coach) won’t be judged by how good the running game looks against Murray State.

Defensive line: It’s one of Georgia’s more experienced units, but it’s also under the most scrutiny. Whether you put the lack of pass rush on the line or the linebackers or some combination, Georgia hasn’t been very disruptive up front. The defensive line has also been one of the few positions absent on Draft Day, calling into question the staff’s ability to develop players at this key position. We know injuries have taken their toll among the veteran linemen, and underclassmen Jordan Davis and Malik Herring took advantage of those openings to earn playing time. The defense’s mandate to create havoc plays begins by affecting the line of scrimmage. For that to happen Georgia has to have big seasons from seniors like Clark, Rochester, and Marshall while hoping that freshman Travon Walker has the kind of impact Davis had a year ago.

Linebackers: Georgia has recruited well at linebacker, but the outside linebackers face questions about their pass rush while the inside backers have something to prove against the run. There might be no more talented group on the team than the outside linebackers especially with Nolan Smith and Jermaine Johnson added to the group. This is the year you would expect to see all of the potential begin to turn into production in the form of a fearsome pass rush and general havoc behind the line of scrimmage. But this unit will depend on the line getting that initial push and occupying blockers. Can the coaches find the right mix of every-down outside linebackers and pass rush specialists?

The search for the next Roquan Smith continues at ILB. The group will be challenged to make stops near the line of scrimmage and improve the defense’s #53 ranking in rushing S&P+. A healthy Monty Rice should make a difference. Is experience enough for Tae Crowder to hold on to his starting role? The staff is waiting for Channing Tindall and Quay Walker to make a move, and few freshmen have more expectations on them out of the gate than Nakobe Dean. Still, it took a couple of years even for Roquan to become Roquan. Will Georgia rely on another year of experience to get the improvement it needs, or will it take a newcomer shaking things up?

Secondary: The big concern is replacing Deandre Baker. Eric Stokes emerged last year as one answer, but that still leaves the other side of the field. There are several candidates – Divaad Wilson was competing for a starting job a year ago until an injury sidelined him, DJ Daniel brings JUCO experience, and Tyson Campbell now has a year of experience under his belt. This is a battle we can expect to linger on into the season, and you hope there’s some kind of resolution before Ian Book and Notre Dame come to town. Coaches weren’t afraid to make midseason changes as the true freshman Campbell struggled, and they won’t hesitate this year either as there is no shortage of options.

Reed and LeCounte are established at safety, but the offseason development of LeCounte will be worth checking out. He’s been candid about his deficiencies a year ago and worked to address them though he was still the team’s leading tackler. Even if he is ready to be more physical this year, the fact that he and Reed were the top two tacklers by a clear margin suggests that too many plays, especially running plays, were getting into the secondary. If the safeties are that involved in run support once again, it’s a sign that things haven’t improved along the line and at ILB. As with cornerback, the coaches weren’t shy about trying Otis Reese and others when things weren’t working. Freshman Lewis Cine will be one of the first off the bench if physicality becomes an issue at safety.

Specialists: Rodrigo Blankenship has earned his celebrity status, though we saw in the 2018 SEC Championship how even one missed kick can open the door for a comeback. Blankenship’s most impressive step forward in 2018 was a big uptick in touchback percentage, but ho boy was it an adventure for the coverage team on the few kickoffs that were returned. With consecutive top signing classes, special teams units should be stocked with young talent. Can they improve on last season’s shaky coverage? Mecole Hardman’s departure means that Georgia must find a new returner, and ball security is a minimum job requirement. Jake Camarda had an up and down season as a freshman punter and was ninth among SEC punters. Will he be more consistent and productive with a year under his belt? Will Kirby Smart be gunshy about any more special teams trickeration after some high-profile disasters in 2018?

That’s enough hand-wringing for one preseason. On to the preseason happy talk.


Post Was 3rd-and-Grantham really a thing?

Friday September 22, 2017

tl;dr: Yes.

Have you heard? Todd Grantham is returning to Athens this weekend. I’m nothing if not a sucker for a good storyline, and this one…rates about a 2 out of 10.

Still, all of this Grantham returns! coverage got me wondering whether “third and Grantham” was a legitimate gripe or just more “run the damn ball Bobo” blathering where confirmation bias magnified any third down conversion. How did Grantham’s defenses really rank on third down?

  • 2010: 79th (41.86%)
  • 2011: 3rd (28.93%)
  • 2012: 37th (36.54%)
  • 2013: 64th (39.49%)

Grantham supervised the transition from a 4-3 base defense to a 3-4, and 2010 saw some growing pains that began to pay off with consecutive division titles in 2011 and 2012. 2011 stands out. Georgia went from a 6-7 team in 2010 to the SEC championship in Grantham’s second year thanks in large part to a top ten defense which, as you might expect, did very well on third down (or on most any down.) The amazing first half against LSU in the 2011 SEC Championship game was Grantham’s defense at its best. The 2012 defense was stacked with talent – Jones, Ogletree, Commings, Rambo, and on. Though the whole 2012 team was probably more well-rounded and in a better position to compete for a national title due to a more potent offense, the 2012 defense showed a fatal flaw against the run. Georgia’s rushing defense dropped from an impressive 11th nationally in 2011 to 81st in 2012. The Tennessee game was a track meet, and we won’t discuss the South Carolina game. It wasn’t until the Florida game and November that the defense really began to look like the sum of its parts (thanks Shawn Williams!)

So, yes, Georgia’s defense was excellent on third down in 2011 and decent in 2012, but they were decidedly average or below-average in Grantham’s other two years in Athens. The slide from 3rd to 37th to 64th on third down didn’t do much to quash the “third and Grantham” meme. In the eyes of many fans, his departure after the 2013 season just saved someone from making a decision a year or two later.

“Third and Grantham” didn’t just come about because of third down conversions – it was about third and long. Is there anything behind that? For answers we can look at opponents’ performance on passing downs.
(Stats are from Football Outsiders who define Passing Downs as “second down with 8 or more yards to go or third or fourth down with 5 or more yards to go.”) In other words, how well does the defense do when they might reasonably be expecting a pass? Grantham’s defenses were never (relatively) terrible in those situations and were never ranked worse than 47th on passing downs. At the same time, with the exception of Grantham’s first year in 2010, the defense’s performance on passing downs was worse than on standard downs. In 2012 and 2013, it was much worse.

Year Std. Downs S&P+ Rank Pass. Downs S&P+ Rank
2010 38 29
2011 9 17
2012 23 47
2013 23 44

When you do a fairly good job on standard downs to set up longer conversions, you expect to be in good shape to get off the field. That didn’t happen. Again, Georgia did better than most on passing downs, but they were relatively weaker in those situations than on standard downs. In 2013, Georgia allowed conversions on nearly 40% of third downs and ranked in the mid-40s on passing downs. It’s clear why the “third and Grantham” meme that appeared during his first season really took hold towards the end of his time in Athens.

Did “third and Grantham” come along to Starkville? Not in the way we think of it. The MSU defense has been impressive on third down in 2017. They are currently among the top ten in the nation, allowing conversions on just 21.4% of third downs through three games. Their defensive success rate on passing downs is 10.7%, good for 4th in the nation. When you’re that adept at stopping drives, you give your offense more possessions, and it’s no surprise then that MSU is among the highest-scoring teams in the nation. If Georgia wants to slow Fitzgerald and his productive offense, there isn’t a much better solution than maintaining possession and moving the chains. Georgia’s challenge on offense is to find success against a defense that has, so far, made “third and Grantham” something to anticipate rather than dread.


Post A trip to remember

Friday September 15, 2017

It’s been a rough week without power and internet access since we returned from Chicago and South Bend, but I wanted to get a few posts out about the trip.

Our group arrived Thursday, and the flight up was reminiscent of earlier trips to Tempe and Boulder. Georgia fans in good spirits (and drinking good spirits) filled the plane, and that became a commonplace sight throughout the trip. We used Chicago as our base and did the Cubs/Dawgs/Falcons triple-header. For several of us, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to check off three of the most iconic venues in sports. It looked as if we weren’t alone, and many smiles, “Go Dawgs!”, and even a few barks were exchanged with thousands of fans throughout the weekend. The experience of being a Road Dawg is a treasure. It’s not always inexpensive, and it can be tough to leave family and other obligations for a distant football game, but it’s almost always worth it. I hope every dedicated Georgia fan can experience a big road game.

I was impressed with the folks behind the Dawg Days events in which thousands of fans participated. I can only speak for my group’s experience, but everything went smoothly – pre-event communication, registration, transportation, and of course the events themselves. It was a well-organized operation, and it even handled the sudden Cubs’ time change. Of course drink and bathroom lines can always be shorter, but that’s a fact of life when you offer free beer to Georgia tailgaters.

That brings us to the game and the campus. $400 million buys you some nice stadium improvements, and it showed. The exterior facade of the stadium blended into the surrounding buildings. Wide concourses had almost a vintage feel, modernized with all of the conveniences. It’s natural to compare the results of this renovation with the needs of Sanford Stadium, but that’s a whole other post for some offseason.

A friend called it “Masters Football.” The stadium wasn’t lit up with marquee boards, there was no find-the-leprechaun-behind-the-french-fries game, and in-game messages highlighted faculty achievements and other points of pride. The only blemish was piping in music, especially on opponent third downs, but that’s kind of a given now. (And with several of the music selections Atlanta hip-hop, perhaps they were just trying to make us feel at home.) The campus of course was immaculate with nearly every Georgia fan seeking out a photo opportunity in front of the Golden Dome or Touchdown Jesus.

The quantity of Georgia fans in South Bend shook a lot of us. Even Georgia fans who expected a large turnout were overwhelmed and didn’t expect it to be that big. I was giddy and immensely proud of the turnout, and I’m relieved that we left a fairly good impression. I don’t blame Notre Dame fans for being put off by an opponent taking over their stadium, but I agree with Michael that the Georgia turnout should be considered the highest compliment to Notre Dame. I don’t know that as many Georgia fans would travel to Penn State or Nebraska, though we’d have an above-average showing as we did for Arizona State and Colorado. Regardless of Notre Dame’s current relevancy, college football fans have to acknowledge the program’s place in our history. Most any program’s DNA has some common threads with Notre Dame whether it’s directly (Harry Mehre) or indirectly (Vince Dooley). If you want to go deeper than I care to here, you can explore Notre Dame’s embodiment of northern college football or even dive into Savannah Catholicism. For whatever reasons, we had to be there. A fun city like Chicago nearby added to the appeal, and the opportunity to take in Wrigley Field and Soldier Field as well as Notre Dame made the trip a must for me.

Seeing the red was impressive enough, but the lights during the fourth quarter fanfare took your breath away. The colors were tough to pick out in far corners of the stadium, but there was no mistaking the breadth of the individual lights from nearly every section of the stadium. There were audible gasps, and you can hear the roar growing from the Georgia fans as they realized the magnitude of the Bulldog presence. I heard a Notre Dame observer on the WSLS podcast talk about how demoralizing that moment was for the home crowd, and I wonder what it did for the teams. Georgia’s players and coaches have been effusive with their praise for the road crowd, and I would bet that it took a little wind out of the sails of the home team.

I’ve been a proponent of keeping these big games on campus, though I realize it’s swimming upstream agaisnt the money to be made from neutral site games. Kirby Smart has expressed his preference for the big neutral site games. Fortunately this home-and-home was negotiated before the coaching change. It’s a fact that the interests of the fans don’t always align themselves with what’s best for the team. Georgia could have simply scheduled another lightweight home game as they will in 2018. Speaking for my wallet, a trip of this magnitude isn’t workable every year or even every other year (especially if Jacksonville is an annual ritual,) but I’m already looking forward to UCLA in 2025. Perhaps the rarity and uniqueness of these games make them so desirable. I don’t know that I would have gone to this game in, say, Dallas. I’m selfishly glad they took the risk to play this series.

I should close by commending everything about Notre Dame. From Chicago to South Bend, ND fans were cordial, welcoming, and gracious. Campus ambassadors and game day staff went looking for ways to help and point us in the right direction. There was some bantering of course, and maybe Notre Dame fans are more subdued than usual these days, but I hope they have at least half as good a time in Athens in 2019 as we did last weekend.


Post You had to bring up the 2013 Auburn game

Wednesday April 26, 2017

Almost four years later and it still hurts. Bill Connelly is looking back at the games of the year for his 50 best college football teams (“best” usually meaning “most interesting” – buy the book.) 2013 Auburn is one of those teams, and you can guess what this featured game was. I agree with him – the Kick Six was a remarkable and unforgettable moment, but this Georgia-Auburn contest was a better game. For whatever reason I’m not the type to try to forget games like this…it’s the opposite, really. There’s so much to unpack from this game, and because I’m a masochist we’ll do some unpacking.

I like to start with the comeback. Georgia trailed by 20 twice. They were down 27-7 in the first half, trailed by 17 at halftime, pulled to within 10, and then Auburn responded with 10 points of their own to take another 20-point lead early in the fourth quarter. Instead of folding Georgia responded with three straight scoring drives and forced their only three-and-outs of the game to salvage enough time to take an improbable 38-37 lead inside of two minutes left. That’s how it ended, right? Go Dawgs.

I still marvel at the gift that was Auburn’s playcalling. Protecting a 37-31 lead inside of six minutes remaining and reeling after two Georgia scores, Auburn went away from the running game that had baffled Georgia’s defense. Nick Marshall threw incomplete passes on first and second down, presenting Georgia’s defense with a rare opportunity to get after the quarterback. Ramik Wilson chased down Marshall from behind, Auburn shanked the punt, and Georgia was set up in Auburn territory with plenty of time for the go-ahead drive. Too much time as it turned out.

Todd Gurley made his biggest mark on this game catching passes. A big part of Auburn’s early success came from bottling up Gurley in the running game. He finished with 79 yards on 15 carries – not awful, but not enough to make much of a difference in the game. Auburn’s large lead meant that Georgia was going to have to throw anyway, and Murray ended up attempting 49 passes. The wrinkle was that Gurley caught 10 of those passes. Those receptions only accounted for 77 yards, so they weren’t big gainers, but they were effective in sustaining the drives that enabled Georgia’s comeback and kept Georgia’s defense off the field. Murray came to rely on Gurley as a reliable check-down to counter the Auburn pressure that often left the tailback open. Gurley’s role catching the ball wasn’t new – we had seen him devastate Florida with a long catch and run just a few weeks earlier. He had 37 receptions in 2013 (third-most on the team!), but more than 25% of them came in this game.

Auburn didn’t punt until well into the third quarter. They got into scoring range on every first half drive. It was bad enough to be down 27-10 at halftime, but the only thing that kept Georgia in the game was that four Auburn scoring chances ended with FG attempts rather than touchdowns. The Bulldog defense was hanging on by its fingernails, but the game could have easily been over by halftime had Auburn turned half of those opportunities into touchdowns. The Tigers converted three of those four FG attempts, but another was blocked in the second quarter and kept Auburn from delivering the knockout blow. Limiting Auburn to a FG attempt early in the fourth quarter was key to Georgia’s comeback – it extended Auburn’s lead to 37-17 but still kept Georgia within three scores.

I’m glad Bill mentioned this – Georgia nearly had a response for the ages. Facing 75 yards to go with 25 seconds left, two long completions and an offsides penalty gave Georgia one shot from 20 yards out. That was about the situation for Michael Johnson’s catch in 2002, but it was Auburn’s year for miracles. I was still impressed that Georgia could do anything resembling football after what had just happened.

Aaron Murray came so close to several career-defining moments. The final drive of the 2012 SECCG is at the top of the list. But like Mason-to-Mitchell against Tech in 2014 or Eason-to-Ridley against Tennessee in 2016, Murray’s tough run to get every inch of five yards for the go-ahead score at Auburn was eclipsed seconds later and ultimately became a cruel glimmer of hope in a heartbreaking loss. Murray’s Georgia career ended a week later with a non-contact knee injury on a run against Kentucky with the game well in hand. That go-ahead score at Auburn was Murray’s last great moment in a Georgia uniform, and hopefully it won’t be forgotten as we try to put the end of the game out of memory. (Bat it down!)

The loss saved Georgia fans from a lesser disappointment: Georgia went into Auburn with faint hopes of an SEC East title, but they’d need to win out and have Missouri lose at least one more. That Missouri loss never came, and we were spared the gut-punch of being denied an SEC East title by Vanderbilt.

UPDATE: For a happier ending, Bill also features the 1980 South Carolina game in which Herschel Walker has no time for geometry.


Post Third down progress

Wednesday October 28, 2015

Following a combined 7-of-31 conversion rate on third down against Alabama and Tennessee, Georgia made third down a focus in the week leading up to the Missouri game. The Dawgs were a much more respectable 9-of-19 in that game against a very good defense. Let’s have a look.

By quarter:

1Q 3-5
2Q 2-4
3Q 1-5
4Q 3-5

Georgia was at 50% or better in 3 of 4 quarters, but that third quarter should be no surprise to anyone who watched both teams sputter out of the locker room. Lambert was just 1-of-3 in the quarter with a sack, and the lone completion was a 2-yard pass to Michel when the Dawgs needed four yards. Things picked up after Missouri’s fumbled punt return; Georgia closed the game converting 4 of their final 7 opportunities including a couple of key fourth quarter conversions that moved them into position for the game-winning points.

Distance:

4 or less: 5-8
5-9: 4-9
10+: 0-2

As you might expect, Georgia converted at a higher rate closer to the first down marker. (That hasn’t always been the case this year.) If Georgia could get anything positive on first or second down, they moved the chains 9 out of 17 times.

Field Position:

Inside Missouri 20: 0-4
Inside Missouri 40: 3-4
Between the 40s: 4-7
Inside Georgia 40: 2-4

Now we’re getting somewhere. Georgia got most of their third down conversions between the 20s but got shut out in the red zone. That aside, the Dawgs moved the ball fairly well into good field position. That mattered as the second half wore on and it became obvious that points would be scarce. Georgia was only 2-for-4 on their own end of the field, but one of those failed conversions led to the fumbled punt.

Passing:

7-9 (5 converted), 64 yards, 7.11 YPA, long 16

That’s…not terrible? Georgia converted the first down on five of their nine passing attempts. (Add in two sacks though, and Georgia was 5-for-11 when Lambert intended to throw on third down.) Lambert continued to be unpredictable. His stats coming into the game indicated trouble between 4 and 9 yards to go, but that’s where he had most of his third down success against Missouri. He was just 2-for-17 at that distance coming into the game, but he was 6-for-8 with four conversions against the Tigers. Meanwhile the deep ball that worked well at Tennessee wasn’t a factor against Missouri. Reggie Davis injured himself on the opening kickoff, and that limited Georgia’s emerging deep threat.

Rushing:

Michel: 5 carries, 3 conversions, 16 yards
Douglas: 3 carries, 1 conversion, 4 yards
Lambert: 2 carries, 0 conversions, -12 yards, 2 sacks

Sony Michel was clearly Georgia’s most successful rushing option on third down, but even he was just over 3 yards per carry. If Douglas is now the power back (he also carried on Georgia’s failed fourth down attempt), there’s some work to be done. We never saw Marshall on third down, and Hicks was needed at fullback. Perhaps the return of Christian Payne makes Hicks more of an option now in those short-yardage situations.

All better, right?

Nearly 50% on third down is definitely an improvement, but facing 19 third downs tells you the kind of game Georgia played. Without many of the explosive plays produced by the offense earlier in the year, Georgia had to drive in small chunks, and that required stringing together more than 2 or 3 first downs. When those methodical drives stall inside the opponent’s 20 without any long runs or deep passes, you end up with four field goal attempts.

Should the offense be encouraged? Sure – they moved from under 25% in the previous two games to about 50% in this game against a respectable defense, and moving the chains beats the alternative. Under 4 yards per play on third down is nothing to celebrate though when the team’s average on all downs is over 6 yards per play. The conversion rate is a positive to build on, but there are still problems closer to the goal line against a more compact defense.


Post 20 Years

Tuesday August 4, 2015

Late last year author W. Joseph Campbell published a book titled 1995: The Year the Future Began. He argues that 1995 was an especially significant year of cultural change: the O.J. Simpson trial popularized the 24-hour news cycle. The Clinton-Lewinski affair began. The Oklahoma City bombing brought home the reality of domestic terrorism. The rise of the Netscape browser brought the World Wide Web from an academic pursuit into widespread personal and commercial use.

1995 was also the year during which I graduated from the University of Georgia, began my first full-time job, and threw together a few web pages which would become this site. Somehow all of that was left out of Campbell’s book, but here we are 20 years later. Some of the old stuff still exists thanks to the Internet Archive. Those pages were cobbled together by hand and uploaded over an agonizingly slow dial-up connection that got cut off when someone called. Now these posts can be tapped out on my phone, pushed over a high-speed wireless network to a complex content management system, and broadcast to thousands of people in 140 characters or less.

Bulldog sports saw their own changes in 1995. It was the last campaign for Ray Goff, and his departure closed the book on the Vince Dooley era. The coaching change and the first spring under new coach Jim Donnan provided us with some of our first content. The basketball program was in transition after 17 years of Hugh Durham, and Tubby Smith would soon give us a brief taste of success. These were the first teams and coaches that would have to deal with the Internet, and it was fun to find our way along with them.

I did the retrospective for our 15th year, and not much has changed. The need for longer-form blog posts is less with Twitter and Instagram out there, but it’s still nice to have a place to write when the muse strikes. That’s the way I imagine things will continue. Blogs have become big business with nationwide networks hosting teams of authors. But there’s always going to be a place for the lone, unedited voice of the individual, and that’s all I’ve ever wanted from this site.

I want to echo what I said in 2010 – I’ve gotten far more out of having done this site than anything I could hope to give back. I’m grateful for the other writers out there keeping the conversation going, the professionals who give us something to talk about, and most of all for the readers and people I’ve had the privilege of meeting or just chatting with over these 20 years. I can’t imagine what things will look like in another 20 years, but I can’t wait to find out.


Post Going from good to great: outside linebackers

Monday July 13, 2015

Like a lot of you, I spent some of the holiday weekend enjoying Georgia’s takeover of the SEC Network. I have a DVR backlog now that should clear up just in time for the season.

One of the featured games was the 2005 SEC Championship – Georgia’s first game against Les Miles and the second SEC title in four years. The Tigers were slight favorites and the higher-ranked team, but Georgia jumped on LSU with a couple of D.J. Shockley bombs to Sean Bailey. Georgia’s defense knocked Jamarcus Russell out of the game, and Tim Jennings sealed the win with a late pick six. It was a great win that salvaged a season disrupted by the midseason injury to Shockley.

While Shockley was the focus of that team both in terms of leadership and performance, Georgia’s running game took a bit of a back seat. It was a transitional period between dominant feature backs: Musa Smith left after 2002, and Knowshon Moreno made his debut in 2007. The 2005 running game was a tailback-by-committee with four players (Shockley included) getting at least 65 rushing attempts. Thomas Brown, Danny Ware, and Kregg Lumpkin made up the trio getting most of the carries with Brown leading the way in both attempts and yardage.

These were good backs. You had a three-star Rivals.com prospect (Ware), a four-star (Brown), and even a five-star (Lumpkin). All three eventually spent time on an NFL roster. All three had at least 1,500 career rushing yards at Georgia. Brown finished his career as one of Georgia’s top 10 backs in career attempts and yardage.

It was still a period of Georgia football where you were left wanting more from the running game. The committee approach wasn’t bad, but neither was it greater than the sum of its parts. It wasn’t obvious until 2007 when Moreno (with substantial help from Brown) reminded us what a running game operating at a high level looked like. The 2005 running game, including Shockley, put up 2,108 yards. That total increased by over 500 yards in 2007 without a mobile quarterback (never mind 3,352 rushing yards in 2014). The trio of Brown, Lumpkin, and Ware put up 1,563 yards in 2005. Nick Chubb alone had 1,594 last season.

As I watched that great 2005 game and that group of capable tailbacks, my mind wandered to the present and to, of all things, Georgia’s outside linebackers. Again we have a highly-recruited group with obvious talent and pro potential that seems to be on the cusp of something more. Certainly there have been moments of individual brilliance, but there have also been several games where the outside linebackers have been non-factors or even weaknesses.

It raised some eyebrows in the spring when Lindy’s quoted an anonymous SEC coach who said,

I think those two guys at outside linebacker (Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins) are talented, but not superstars. I think they are a product of the recruiting machine and hype.

While our first instinct is to get defensive about a quote like that, I admit I see where it’s coming from. The last bit about recruiting hype is inflammatory, but the “talented but not superstars” line hits a little too close to home.

Jenkins appeared to be the heir apparent to Jarvis Jones after a standout 2012 Florida game. His tackles have increased each year, but his sack totals haven’t. Floyd contributed right away as a freshman, but his numbers stayed level in his second season. Carter made the most of his time as a true freshman playing behind more experienced players, and he’s testing the creativity of the coaches as they try to get all of these talented linebackers on the field.

There have been injuries along the way, and Floyd especially was derailed by a shoulder injury towards the end of last season. That injury had a silver lining: selfishly, we are glad to see Floyd back for another year. It also opened the door for Carter to see much more playing time during the bowl game, and he didn’t disappoint. The players have also been used in different roles. Jenkins has drifted towards more of a traditional 4-3 defensive end role, leading one NFL scout to want to see more out of him as an edge rusher. Floyd has been that edge rusher, but he’s also been versatile enough to drop back into the difficult star position at times. He’s listed as both an outside and inside linebacker on the preseason depth chart.  Carter hasn’t had time to settle into much of a defined role, and he’s been lined up all over the place to cause mayhem in the pass rush.

Seth Emerson put it well last week when he concluded that “Jenkins and Floyd have to hear the time ticking on their chance to become stars.” They’re gifted players with certain NFL futures – the shoulder injury is probably the only thing that kept Floyd from entering the 2015 draft. We’re not going to get into ESPN “elite” territory by trying to define exactly what would meet Emerson’s definition of a star player, but Jarvis Jones and his 155 tackles and 28 sacks over two seasons wasn’t that long ago. That followed Justin Houston’s 10 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss in 2010.

Even ignoring specific numbers, a high standard was in place for the outside linebacker position, and all three of Georgia’s current OLB standouts have shown the ability to play to that standard. With Carter gaining experience, Floyd healthy, and Jenkins stepping into the leadership role of a senior, each is in a place for production to skyrocket and, more importantly, for the unit as a whole to carry an improving defense.


Post Third downs key to slowing Auburn

Tuesday November 18, 2014

When you look at the stats and see that Auburn was 8-of-14 on third down, you might conclude they did a good job of sustaining drives. That was the case on Auburn’s first possession when they converted on three third downs before scoring. After that drive, Auburn was a little less-impressive: 5-of-11. One of those five was the screen pass with two seconds remaining in the first half, and another was late in the fourth quarter with the backups in. In other words, Auburn didn’t have a meaningful third down conversion after the middle of the second quarter.

We knew that the Auburn offense is geared to move the chains on third and short, and they did well in that situation. They converted five of their seven opportunities at 3rd and 4 or shorter. It stands out that one of those Georgia stops was on Auburn’s second possession following Georgia’s failed fake punt. With momentum on their side, a lead, and a lucky break from the incorrect penalty on the fake punt, Auburn was set up to drive for a two-score lead. Stopping Artis-Payne a yard short on 3rd and 3 was a big moment in the game.

The Tigers were predictably less-effective on longer third down distances, converting three of seven. One was unfortunately on the opening drive and led to a score. The other two longer conversions were inconsequential – you had a screen just before halftime and a 25-yard completion against the reserves in the waning moments.

Third down distance is all about success on first and second down. Seven of Auburn’s ten first half third down opportunities were short yardage. They did a good job on the early downs of getting in a position to move the chains, and they converted 70% of their third downs in the first half. Fortunately Georgia was able to put together a pair of long scoring drives in the second quarter to keep the Auburn offense off the field. The Georgia defense avoided the big play and made enough timely stops to prevent Auburn from putting any more points on the board. Auburn converted just one third down all game in Georgia territory, and that was on the opening drive.

Though the Georgia defense was playing well for much of the first half, they really stepped it up on first and second down after intermission. Auburn didn’t have a single third down opportunity in the second half shorter than 3rd and 8. Their average distance to go on third downs in the second half (after penalties) was over 13 yards. That was a great job by the Georgia defense to slam the door and make sure there wouldn’t be any fourth quarter drama this year.


Post Why so glum, chum?

Friday September 26, 2014

When the initial Georgia-Tennessee point spread came out earlier in the week, “shocked” is probably the best way to describe the reaction of many Georgia fans. Georgia was a consensus favorite, but I had a tough time finding anyone who could justify a spread of 15-20 points. Didn’t they watch last season’s game? Don’t they know Georgia can’t defend the pass?

It’s not that Georgia fans have swung to the polar opposite of their outlook following the Clemson game – it’s just the disbelief that they should be favored by that much against a name-brand SEC rival (even one with the recent struggles of Tennessee). Surely the money would flow to Tennessee and the line would correct itself. Surprise – that hasn’t happened. The line remains a healthy 17 points in most places.

So why the disconnect between this vote of confidence from Vegas and the relative pessimism that seems to be out there? I’m not among those dreading this game, but I’ve tried to understand those who are. I think a lot of it has to do with still being shell-shocked from last season’s near-death experience in Knoxville. The Dawgs not only had to go to overtime; they had to mount a last-minute drive in regulation just to get there after blowing a lead. It was the most Pyrrhic of victories, and the trauma from that game has us a little skittish.

Bernie hits on another source of worry…the start time. A raucous Georgia crowd like the ones we saw for LSU and Clemson would definitely be an advantage. A sleepy noontime crowd would tend to neutralize that edge and make life easier for a young Tennessee team. I’m hoping Georgia fans take the exhortations of Mark Richt seriously and show up for the game. If disrupting the offensive line and quarterback is a big part of Georgia’s defensive game plan, a loud crowd will play a big role. One positive I took from last week’s Troy game is that, even considering the quality of the opponent, the Dawgs came out focused and effective. They didn’t slop their way to a 24-14 halftime lead before pulling away. They’ll need to start at least that well against a much tougher challenge.

One reason I didn’t go out and bet the house on Georgia (-17) is the improvement of the Tennessee defense. It’s true that Georgia holds the advantage on both sides of the ball, but Tennessee’s defense isn’t awful. Georgia’s offense has just been that much better. The Vols did surprisingly well in their opener and shut down a good Utah State quarterback. They never got the offense going at Oklahoma, but the defense kept them within a few scores until the second half.

The cognitive dissonance around this game is more severe than I’ve seen in a while. Hopefully that goes out the window about 11:15 and we can drop the angst and do our part to get the win that most every objective indicator seems to be coming.


Post Georgia’s field position advantage

Tuesday September 23, 2014

At the risk of jinxing things, Georgia’s ability to avoid turnovers through three games has been impressive. The only giveaway of the season was a questionable fumble by Michael Bennett against Clemson. Mason hasn’t thrown a pick, and the fleet of tailbacks have held onto the ball.

The benefits of not turning the ball over are obvious, but one big benefit has been Georgia’s advantage in field position. It’s pretty remarkable – only one opponent drive all season has started in Georgia territory. That happened when Barber mis-hit a punt in the third quarter of the Troy game and gave the Trojans the ball at the Georgia 45. Otherwise Georgia’s opponents have had to drive for their points.

It’s even more impressive than just forcing opponents to start in their own half – there have only been four drives all year that started outside the opponent’s 30, and half of those were by Troy. South Carolina and Clemson each had just one drive start beyond their own 30. For context, I count 20 Georgia drives through three games that have started past the Georgia 30. The lack of Georgia turnovers is a big factor in that disparity, but it also speaks to Georgia’s kick coverage, punting, and the ability of the offense to avoid getting pinned down near their own goal line.

An advantage like that in field position is often an indicator of success, and we saw the fruits of that advantage against Clemson. South Carolina was a different story – Georgia only got three points from two turnovers inside of South Carolina territory. On the flip side, the South Carolina offense was good enough (or the Georgia defense poor enough) to overcome the field position and put together long scoring drives all day.

If the Dawgs can keep this up against Tennessee, it should lead to a long day for the Vols. The Tennessee offense is good enough to hit some big plays, and Georgia’s pressure won’t win every play. But is the Tennessee offense good enough to string together enough plays to drive the ball 70+ yards consistently? It’s especially tough to sustain drives with the nation’s #95 rushing offense getting just 3.33 yards per carry. For Tennessee to have success, they’ll have to either reverse Georgia’s field position fortunes (the Vols have forced six turnovers through three games) or protect the passer well enough to keep drives going.


Post Tennessee to-do list

Friday October 4, 2013

1) Look good on the road. If we go back to last season, Georgia has had five true road games: Missouri, South Carolina, Kentucky, Auburn, and Clemson. They’re 3-2 in those games, and only the win at Auburn could be considered a clean performance. The Dawgs didn’t lead Missouri until the final minute of the third quarter, and they had to sweat out a win over a bad Kentucky team. The Auburn win was an impressive job of taking care of business, but that was against a team and program that had packed it in. It might be time to start thinking about style points, and a conference road win isn’t a bad place to make an impression.

Neyland Stadium won’t resemble what greeted Georgia at South Carolina or Clemson, but it’s still Neyland Stadium. Maybe it’s the ghosts of 2009 spooking me, but that place can become hostile in a hurry even if the natives walk through the gates expecting the worst. Georgia’s defense has been banging away all week about communications issues. Whether they use hand signals, smoke signals, or semaphore, it would be a good time for the coaches and players to get on the same page about lining up in proper position to play defense.

The offense, too, will have to deal with the crowd. There are the obvious things like false start penalties. They can help themselves out by avoiding the classic third-and-long situations when the crowd is most likely to be a factor. When Georgia’s offense has been at its best this season, it rarely gets to third down as it moves down the field.

2) Value possession. The Vols have caused multiple turnovers in all but one game (Oregon). There’s no surer way to put wind in the sails of an underdog than to give up a play to its defense or special teams. It’s not just about giving up points – it’s also the cost of not scoring points. Even when the offense is operating well, you’re only going to have so many possessions. If the defense hasn’t figured things out, you need those possessions to build your cushion (or, worse, just to keep pace.)

The defense has a role too. Not only are turnovers possible if Tennessee’s passes are inaccurate, but the defense could squeeze out two or three more possessions for the offense. Tennessee under Butch Jones is yet another team looking to use tempo to its advantage, but a few quick three-and-outs could backfire for the Vols and give Georgia a few more opportunities to score. That’s the top question for the Georgia defense: can they get off the field on third downs?

3) Don’t let a Tennessee weakness become a strength. For one afternoon in 2009, Jonathan Crompton looked like Tom Brady. The Vols successfully exploited Georgia’s defense with a steady stream of play action and bootlegs. Georgia will have enough to worry about against a good group of tailbacks and a stout offensive line without the Tennessee passing game suddenly coming to life. While the Georgia defense will focus on a third-straight impressive outing against the run, they can’t fall asleep against big plays from the air. Georgia’s pass pressure will be tough to come by against an experienced line whose strength is pass protection, so it will be up to the embattled secondary to cover until the pressure can break through. That job is made even tougher by the possible absence of injured starting safety Tray Matthews.

4) Let September frame the challenge for October. While I’d love to see a result like the Auburn game last season, I know that Tennessee will put up much more of a fight. A more realistic benchmark might be the Ole Miss game where a close game is turned by a big play before Georgia begins to pull away. The danger on the road though is a crowd that becomes increasingly confident and vocal the longer the home team hangs around.

I was impressed at how Georgia handled the draining and physical win against Florida last year and rolled into November to play their best football of the season against a string of underdogs. They’re facing a similar strech after a very difficult but rewarding September. Surviving that month isn’t the end – it just kept the team’s goals alive. It would be a shame for the work that went into those results to be thrown away against lesser opponents. I hope that’s the mindset the team takes into this game and the ones that follow: play with the focus and purpose of a team that realizes that these opponents would like nothing more than to take away everything you earned last month.


Post South Carolina thoughts: shaking it off

Friday September 6, 2013

Snap out of it, Dawg fans. There’s still this funk hanging over a lot of us, and that’s not what we need on Saturday. If you saw the game last year in Columbia you know how a home crowd can contribute to steamrolling an opponent. I can’t remember the coaches and players ever being this persistent about asking for a good crowd on Saturday. You can tell what this game means to them, and I hope it means enough to us to put aside the post-Clemson blues and do what we can from the Dawg Walk through pregame through all four quarters.

Countering Clowney

A great player like Clowney is disruptive by nature, so it’s foolish just to go about things as if he’s just another defensive end. At the same time, focusing too much on an individual can keep you on the defensive and take you out of plays that might find success against parts of the defense that are less strong. You can’t play scared. There was that whole subplot a few weeks ago about which quarterbacks played scared against Clowney. “Scared” is a loaded term. What happens is that a quarterback – an entire offense, even – becomes so aware of a player that you rush things or throw out entire elements of your playbook. Short, quick passes are fine, but do you entirely give up on the vertical game? (See “asinine sideline swing screen.”) The diversity of what Georgia can do on offense is one of its strengths; becoming a predictable draw or screen offense makes the field more compact and can even make things easier for the player you’re so worried about.

Last week, Georgia was a disappointing 4-of-14 on third down. It didn’t help that nine of those 14 third down attempts came with at least five yards to go. If you want to lessen the impact of a dominant defensive end, limiting obvious passing situations is a good place to start. Georgia has to be more effective on first and second down and either avoid third downs or make the distance as manageable as possible. The barrage of ineffective counter draws last week set up some nice play-action possibilities (especially the long reception by Hicks), but is it worth the numerous long-yardage situations if you’re only going to set up one or two plays out of it?

In the end, there is no play that doesn’t depend on blocking and execution. Georgia can call up the most brilliant scheme to counter the South Carolina defensive line, but it won’t matter without a better effort from the line.

Screens

Georgia threw the ball to its running backs a few times last week. There was the brilliant play-action catch and rumble by Hicks. Murray checked down to Gurley on the very first play. Marshall made a nice catch on a swing pass. But Georgia, for whatever reason, still struggles to execute the screen pass. It might just be my own confirmation bias, but I just don’t think of the screen as a play Georgia runs well. The Dawgs had a couple of well-timed screens go awry at Clemson. Gurley was set up with blockers and a lot of open field ahead, but Murray’s pass was tipped and nearly intercepted. Georgia later ran the mirror image of the famous Nebraska inside screen to Conley, but Murray had to sidestep and ended up making an inaccurate throw for an incompletion.

Murray’s height is always going to come up. I’m sure that can be a factor, but even Joe Flacco at 6’6″ is going to have a tough time seeing over a leaping 6’4″ defensive end only a few feet away. A well-executed screen is a balance between holding the defensive pressure long enough for the play to develop and then releasing in time to trap the pressure behind the play. If you wait too long to release, there are no blockers for the receiver, and the receiver is likely to be caught in a traffic jam near the line of scrimmage. If you release too soon, you give a quick defender like Clowney a clear path to the quarterback before the quarterback can even drop back. That leads to unpleasant outcomes like this:

Yes, the coup de grace of the 2011 loss to South Carolina came when Clowney blew up an attempted screen. We know that screens can be great ways to counter aggressive defenses. I’m just hesitant to go all-in with screens in this game because 1) Georgia has problems executing them, 2) you’re playing with fire when you invite a speedy rusher into the backfield, and 3) is South Carolina’s defense all that aggressive? By that, I mean their defensive line is good enough that they can get the pressure they need with just the front four. Watch these last two videos from their UNC game. Sacks from simple straight-ahead four-man rushes. Not even a stunt to be found.

That strength along the line creates a big luxury for the defense. You can drop everyone else into coverage and be fairly certain that you’ll get enough pressure if you can cover just competently for a few seconds. So even if you’re able to get off a screen behind that line, know that you’ll still have seven defenders behind the line to deal with. This goes back to what I was saying about how playing scared can make you do things contrary to what you might do best. A screen is a logical counter to a good pass rush, but does it attack the weaknesses of the South Carolina defense? Or does the very presence of Clowney bait Georgia into doing something they don’t do all that well? Is a win against Clowney necessarily a win for the offense?

Catastrophe

Forget the debate over Murray for a second. Going back to 2005, South Carolina’s defense and special teams has put points on the board against Georgia seven times. We remember the crushing fumble and fake punt in the 2011 game, but there was also an interception return in there too. It goes without saying that Georgia has to avoid not only crippling turnovers but also the special teams miscues that helped to sink them last week (and last year in Columbia). We also know that it’s not just the direct scores that hurt you. Ealey’s fumble from the SC 3 in 2010 ended Georgia’s best chance to get back in that game. An early Murray INT last season ended Georgia’s only trip into South Carolina territory until late in the second quarter.

There’s the flip side – what can Georgia do to create turnovers and points? South Carolina is fairly stingy with the ball. Shaw only threw seven interceptions in 2012, two of which came playing from behind in the 4th quarter at LSU. In their three-game losing streak to South Carolina, the Dawgs have forced three turnovers – 1 in 2010 and 2 in 2011 – but they’ve done little with those opportunities. A Garcia fumble in 2010 led to a long Georgia drive, but the drive ended on Georgia’s own fumble. Garcia was intercepted twice in 2011 and had a rough first half, but Georgia failed to take control of the game when they had momentum. The kind of opportunity that we saw in the muffed fumble recovery at Clemson have to be cashed in on in games like this.

But before Georgia worries about converting opportunities, they have to create them. Georgia’s lone takeaway last week came on a muffed punt. The defense didn’t have many chances to create turnovers and didn’t come away with any. Grantham’s “biggest complaint to the players was a lack of turnovers.” You wonder if Georgia is going to go with a higher risk/reward approach on Saturday.

Other

  • With Mitchell out for Georgia, I expect South Carolina to focus on Gurley. That means some dense coverage in the short and intermediate passes until Georgia can establish some kind of deep threat. I’d be happy to see an early shot or two, even if unsuccessful, to show some attempt at a vertical passing game. If the SC linebackers are going to help against the run, this is an opportunity for Lynch to have a bigger impact than he had a week ago.
  • While Murray can be “wild in the strike zone” even as he’s completing passes, that’s fine with me. He just could really use a good, confidence-building start. The early pick in Columbia last year deflated the offense, and it took a while to recover.
  • I like Georgia’s matchups against South Carolina’s receivers – as long as they keep those receivers from getting behind them. South Carolina tested Georgia deep just a couple of times last year. The Bulldog defensive backs had good chances to break up those passes (or even intercept them), but they lost the one-on-one battle each time. Hopefully Georgia’s safeties do better this time around.

Post Preseason pessimism dump

Monday July 29, 2013

I’m generally a pretty upbeat fan, and I’m really excited about this coming season. That said, when you have all offseason to think about these things, some doubts never fail to pop up. Since practice starts tomorrow, I’m going to get them all out of my system now. There are obvious concerns like all of the youth on defense or the ever-present threat of a key injury, but here are a few others:

Murray’s head. Any questions about Aaron Murray’s ability to make throws went out the window years ago. His improvisation at the end of the first half against Ole Miss was one of the most impressive individual plays I saw last year. Where Murray stands to make the biggest gains as a senior is in his mental approach to the game.

Murray tends to be an emotional player. His habit of getting too “juiced up” at the start of games has been tough to shake. To his credit, he’s spent time working on himself. He worked on the quarterbacking part over spring break out at Oklahoma. But he’s also taken the initiative to work on his leadership, solicit feedback from his teammates, and apply his industrial-organizational psychology academic work to the team’s offseason program.

He took a big step forward last year in terms of production and efficiency. It’ll be tough enough maintaining that level of play. The loss to Alabama hit Murray hard, and I’m sure many of his teammates feel the same way. Channeling that emotion into the upcoming season instead of dwelling on the loss will be important – there’s no time to come out with anything but the most focused, confident, and level-headed effort.

Tailback. Setting aside Gurley, I still don’t think we know what we have at the tailback spot. Marshall was brilliant in bursts, but after starting the year with at least ten carries in each of the first six games, Marshall had only one other game with over eight carries and only two other games with over 40 yards. I’m really looking forward to seeing how he’s developed in the offseason and whether the coaches will be more aggressive about giving him carries (or, going by his nice work on the touchdown reception in the bowl, opportunities in the passing game out of the backfield). It comes down to this – if, heaven forbid, Gurley is sidelined for any period of time, can Marshall manage the workload?

Special teams. Georgia’s 2013 outlook is usually discussed in terms of a loaded offense and an inexperienced defense. The third element of the game hasn’t come up much. Collin Barber at punter is fairly solid. Morgan seemed to exorcise his extra point problems towards the end of the year, but he was only 2-of-6 on field goals after October. His possible absence for the opener adds more uncertainty.

Then there’s returners. Malcolm Mitchell was hit-or-miss last year on kickoffs, and last season’s new rules make long returns less likely. Fair or not, Mitchell’s injury track record also makes it a scary proposition to put a player expected to be a top receiver at risk on returns. Punt returns weren’t an especially productive area. But do they have to be? With a potent offense, there’s less pressure to affect field position through aggressive special teams. So long as he’s reliable with possession, McGowan’s 8 yards per punt return could be all the team asks for.

Game management. Pace has been a hot topic over the past few weeks as coaches debate whether there are legitimate concerns about player safety. Pace will also be a factor for Georgia’s coaches to consider. Of course winning the game comes first, but Georgia’s young defense is less of a potential liability the less it’s on the field. Now “pace” isn’t necessarily the same as scoring quickly. Teams can have aggressive tempo but eat up the field using many short-yardage plays in long scoring drives. Teams can also be slow to snap the ball but better than most in generating big plays that result in quick scores. Does the need to rest and manage the defense drive in part how Georgia’s offensive coaches approach their ideal pace? There’s another way to look at it – if you’re fairly confident in the offense, is there less of a reason to be cautious with the defense?

Is the offense as good as we think it is? I guess this is what we’re all waiting to see. You only have to go back a year to the expectations of the defense. Of course the defense wasn’t awful (and even better than 2011 in some instances.) But the suspensions put the unit on its heels from the outset, and it took a remarkable crisis in the middle of the season for the unit to start performing as we had hoped. Even then, there were big flaws that showed up in the postseason that were shocking for a unit loaded with such talent.

The 2013 offense (knock wood) will at least start the season much more intact than the 2012 defense did. There’s always the dreaded sophomore slump, but Gurley was consistent enough in 2012 to have faith in him going forward. Murray’s ability isn’t in doubt, though he’ll be fighting against history to maintain the level of play from his junior season. Mitchell, when healthy, is as good of a target as there is. Bennett’s return seems to be on track. Lynch emerged last year to become arguably the best tight end in the conference.

The line, especially after the return of Kolton Houston, finally has depth and experience. Some line spots aren’t 100% settled yet, but there won’t be a lack of options, and a freshman won’t have to be pressed into service on the starting line. So there’s plenty of good reason to be optimistic about the offense, but the prospects for the season depend on it living up to its billing.

There. That feels better. Maybe some legitimate concerns, maybe some overthinking blather. It’s good to get it out, and I look forward to the unofficial start of the season tonight at the UGA Day event in Gwinnett.


Post Cashing in on scoring opportunities

Monday July 22, 2013

Yet another interesting post over at Football Study Hall – this one looks at how well teams finish scoring opportunities (or at least trips inside the opponent’s 40). With a good kicker, you can start thinking about points not to far past that yard line.

The data for Georgia go in two different directions. First, Georgia was outstanding at generating points if they crossed the opponent’s 40. Georgia came away with an average of 5.17 points per trip – 4th best in the nation.

Of course the counterpart to that bit of information is to look at how often Georgia got the ball into that position. There they weren’t as successful. Over half – 53% – of Georgia’s drives made it across the opponent’s 40. That’s not bad, but it’s still only a little above average. 46 teams were better. For comparison, Alabama and A&M both had over 64% of their drives make it inside the opponent’s 40. That might not be surprising for the Aggies, but it’s a reminder of how quietly efficient the Alabama offense was last year.

So when Georgia’s offense got rolling, it was hard to stop. It also had its stagnant moments where drives fizzled. If there’s an area where Georgia’s loaded offense can improve in 2013, it’s in sustaining drives. Get that 53% over 60%. It’s an attainable target; 13 teams managed it last year. If Georgia can finish those drives at a comparable rate, you’ll see some big dividends. At the same time, improvement in this area will also help the young defense. You’ll have the offense on the field longer, and more sustained drives means fewer three-and-outs that put the defense right back out there.