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Post Georgia’s 2020 football schedule

Saturday August 10, 2019

The SEC released its 2020 football schedule earlier this week. Georgia’s schedule has two items that were big enough to compete with 2019 preseason coverage. First was confirmation that, yes, the Auburn game would leave its traditional November slot for an early October date. The big story was that the Bulldogs would open SEC play on the road in Tuscaloosa as Alabama rotates on to Georgia’s schedule. The two most recent regular season meetings haven’t gone so well for the Dawgs, but Georgia has taken the past two meetings in Tuscaloosa.

It’s a good thing that the Alabama game will take place so early in the season as its build-up has the potential to suck all of the air out of the room, especially if the two teams meet yet again in the 2019 postseason. Both teams will be able to put it behind them and get on with the rest of their season. We’ll hear plenty about that game during the offseason. It’s possible that both teams will have new quarterbacks, and there are a zillion other storylines about that game we’ll have plenty of time to get to after, you know, the actual 2019 season staring us in the face.

Some other quick thoughts about the 2020 schedule before we shelve it for the next six months:

1. I’m glad Blutarsky brought this up because I was struggling with a way to put it. The early placement of the Alabama-Georgia game is ideal for the conference’s chances of having two playoff teams. The loser of the game will have plenty of time in which to climb back up the polls before a possible rematch in December. At the same time, a loss will leave one of those teams with little margin for error for the rest of their season within their own division.

2. Not only does Georgia open the SEC slate at Alabama, that trip to Tuscaloosa will also be Georgia’s third game in 12 days. The season opener in Atlanta against Virginia is on Labor Day (Monday). It will be interesting to see how the staff manages the ETSU game. On one hand, you want the team sharp and rounding into form for the season’s biggest game. On the other hand, you might need an opportunity to rest players moreso than usual after a game just five days earlier.

3. You can pencil in October 3rd (Vanderbilt) as Homecoming.

4. Every couple of years we’ll get a schedule that takes Georgia away from Athens for over a month. With only six home games on the schedule, Georgia will go from October 10th through November 14th without a game in Athens.

5. Yes, the shift in the Auburn game will take some getting used to. It also means that Georgia will have its SEC West obligations out of the way by early October. Georgia closes the conference schedule with five straight SEC East games and won’t play its second game in the division until the second half of the season. In fact, it looks as if the SEC has set up many of its biggest intra-divisonal games for late in the season. From weeks 9 through 13 you have Georgia-Florida, Georgia-Tennessee, LSU-Alabama, LSU-Auburn, Auburn-Alabama, Alabama-Texas A&M, and LSU-Texas A&M. November 2020 should be fun.

6. I was disappointed to see the Kentucky game move back to November. There was some hope based on the 2019 schedule that we’d have an October trip to Lexington. An early autumn trip with Fall Meet going on at Keeneland used to be one of the highlights for Road Dawgs, but it’s not going to happen next year.

Post The 84 that will start preseason camp

Thursday August 1, 2019

Preseason camp opens on Friday, and we’ll get our first practices with the complete 2019 roster. 14 members of the incoming class went through spring practice, and the rest of the class arrived earlier in the summer for offseason workouts. There’s been some additional attrition since spring, but by and large the team that reports will be intact. Returning players made grades, and all incoming players qualified.

Georgia is, by my count, at 84 scholarship players entering camp. They were at the limit of 85 until early June when JJ Holloman was dismissed. Kirby Smart will likely use that scholarship to expand the size of the 2020 class, but it might also mean that a senior walk-on earns a full ride this year. Then again, Ahkil Crumpton didn’t join the 2017 squad until August, so it’s possible that Smart is still out there beating the bushes to find a late transfer to use that open scholarship. Stay tuned.

I like using the “recruiting roster” format below to get a quick sense of how the talent on the team is distributed across classes and positions.

The first thing you’ll notice is how the roster is weighted towards the left side of the table – 50 of the 84 have at least three years of eligibility remaining. That’s not a shock – with early enrollment and the transfer portal, all teams are young teams now. When you’ve recruited this well, just about anyone could be called on to play. That’s especially true of the defense – Ojulari and Wilson were the only defensive newcomers redshirted last year, and they were injured. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that the majority of Georgia’s team now comes from the 2018 and 2019 classes rated #1 in the nation by some recruiting services.

It looks like a relatively small senior class, but we can expect that group to be augmented by some juniors declaring for the draft, particularly on offense. Pretty much every position group on offense other than TE has potential junior pro prospects. We have a whole season to play before fretting about 2020, but if Fromm and Swift declare for the draft, Georgia’s skill positions will be light on upperclassmen. It’s a problem for down the road, but there could be a fairly large leadership vacuum (and opportunity!) on the offense in 2020.

For now though it’s an impressive looking group. Georgia is starting to accumulate nice depth across the board. Barring injuries, the Dawgs might not have to lean on true freshmen as much as they have in the past couple of years. Some like George Pickens and Nolan Smith might be ready sooner than others, but the staff can plug these newcomers in when it makes sense and not because there are no other options.

(Possible Day-One starters are in bold – just a best guess using the post-spring depth chart from UGASports.com. [R] indicates a player who has redshirted.)

Years of Eligibility Remaining
  4 3 2 1
QB D’wan Mathis Stetson Bennett Jake Fromm  
RB Kenny McIntosh
Zamir White [R]
James Cook D’Andre Swift Brian Herrien
TE Ryland Goede
John FitzPatrick [R]
Brett Seither
    Charlie Woerner
Eli Wolf
WR Dominick Blaylock
Tommy Bush [R]
Kearis Jackson [R]
George Pickens
Matt Landers Trey Blount
Demetris Robertson
Lawrence Cager
Tyler Simmons
OL Owen Condon
Warren Ericson [R]
Warren McClendon
Xavier Truss
Clay Webb
Trey Hill
Cade Mays
Jamaree Salyer
Isaiah Wilson [R]
Ben Cleveland [R]
Solomon Kindley [R]
Justin Shaffer
Andrew Thomas
D’Marcus Hayes
DL Zion Logue
Tymon Mitchell
Bill Norton
Travon Walker
Jordan Davis
Netori Johnson
Tramel Walthour
Malik Herring
Devonte Wyatt
Justin Young [R]
Michael Barnett
Michail Carter
Tyler Clark
David Marshall
Julian Rochester
LB Rian Davis
Nakobe Dean
Trezmen Marshall
Azeez Ojulari [R]
Nolan Smith
Adam Anderson
Robert Beal
Brenton Cox
Channing Tindall
Quay Walker
Walter Grant
Jermaine Johnson
Nate McBride
Monty Rice
Tae Crowder
DB Lewis Cine
Tyrique Stevenson
Makiya Tongue
Divaad Wilson [R]
Latavious Brini
Tyson Campbell
Otis Reese
Christopher Smith
Ameer Speed
Eric Stokes
DJ Daniel
Richard LeCounte
William Poole
Mark Webb
Tyrique McGhee
J.R. Reed
Specialists   Jake Camarda   Rodrigo Blankenship
28 22 19 15

Post Getting to 70

Thursday August 1, 2019

As practice opens on Friday, we’ll have the usual questions to answer: who steps up to replace the players no longer on the team, who will start, and which newcomers are ready to contribute right away.

A recent UGASports.com podcast reminded me that the schedule presents another preseason question Georgia hasn’t had to deal with in several years: Georgia opens on the road for the first time since 2013 and opens with a road conference game for the first time since 1994. Why does that matter? Georgia can only travel 70 players to Nashville. At least 14 scholarship players won’t make the trip, and that number could be higher if walk-ons are needed for special teams or depth (like a third quarterback.)

That limit means that the travel roster, or at least its first draft, has to be settled in preseason camp. The job isn’t just identifying starters or even the two-deep. The staff must also form personnel groups, special teams units, and select kick returners from that 70.

Coaches won’t have a home game or even a road/neutral nonconference game in which to evaluate the roster before deciding who makes the cut. All of that work must be done in August, and the 28 newcomers or redshirted players won’t have long to make an impression. For those who aren’t established starters it creates a little more urgency to stand out over the next four weeks.

Injuries will do some of the deciding for the coaches. Players like Rian Davis and Ryland Goede who are working back from knee surgeries will likely be scratches. Georgia will have the luxury of redshirting several incoming offensive and defensive linemen, so they’ll also be candidates to miss the trip. Those newcomers who enrolled early and went through spring drills will probably have a leg up over those newcomers who didn’t arrive until June. Still, at some of the unsettled positions like receiver and defensive back, the opportunity to make the 70 is wide open.

No, it’s not as critical as it might be if Georgia were opening with Auburn. It does set a bit of a pecking order and sets the bar for those who didn’t make the roster. As we know with this staff, nothing is set in stone from week to week, and there will be plenty of time in September for other players to make their case. After Vanderbilt the team will have over a month at home to evaluate and refine its travel list before the next road game at Tennessee, and we might expect to see a slightly different 70 make that trip.

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 “I will know when you come in and what you buy and when.”

Monday June 24, 2019

Daniel Kaplan at the Athletic has a piece looking at the push at sporting events towards cashless transactions. Stadiums and arenas, especially newer ones opening with the technology already baked in, are foregoing cash at point-of-sale locations. Fans must either use credit cards or NFC-enabled devices (watch or phone) to buy concessions, merchandise, and anything else while they’re in the stadium.

The appeal of cashless transactions is convenience and speed. Using cash isn’t exactly as slow as writing a check in the grocery store line, but you still have to count out money and wait for change to be made. A tap or a swipe should be quicker, provided everyone in line knows how the system works – not always a sure thing.

Kaplan points out an issue with cashless payments that shouldn’t be overlooked: not all fans have smartphones, and certain groups and income levels are less likely to have credit or debit cards. Some facilities are addressing this issue with “reverse ATMs” where fans can load cash onto prepaid debit cards, but even that requires someone to plan out how much to load on the card. That will often be more than they intend to spend if they don’t want to get caught at the register with less on their prepaid card than they need.

It’s not just about the fans of course. Going cashless isn’t without benefits to the stadiums and teams, and this is probably the most interesting part of Kaplan’s piece. Electronic transactions provide countless opportunities for data-mining and tracking. Sure, no one has to buy anything at the ballpark, but even the ticket to get in the place is now often tied to a phone.

Steve Cannon, CEO of the group that owns Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz stadium and the sports teams that play there, points out how the data might be used to improve the customer experience. Teams can learn what fans do and don’t like and even offer coupons and discounts. It doesn’t take long for things to get a little creepy though. “We will have a much more nuanced understanding of what your likes are,” Cannon explained. As more elements of the gameday experience from ticketing to parking to concessions to merchandise are routed through team-controlled apps, Cannon is very clear about what it all means: “‘I will know when you come in,’ he concluded, ‘and what you buy and when.'”

Will Leitch recently wrote about the trend of sports teams and arenas chasing fans willing to spend top-dollar for “exclusive” seating, access, and benefits. Leitch cites studies that estimate “70 to 80 percent of ticket revenue comes from the first 15 to 20 rows.” Modern stadiums don’t tout capacity anymore; it’s now about the courtside bar.

Whether someone buys a hotdog or a jersey is useful information (hey, here’s a coupon for our online team store!) but still fairly small potatoes. Businesses requiring cashless payments is nothing new, and neither is data-mining a customer’s purchase history. As the stadium experience is tailored more and more for the higher-end customer Leitch describes, those are the fans about which teams will want to know as much as possible. Knowing the purchasing habits and preferences of someone willing to pay thousands of dollars for a premium experience is valuable. Many companies would go to great lengths to be able to focus their marketing efforts at that audience, and teams will be able to monitor (and even customize) that fan’s entire event experience by funneling as many actions as possible through their app.

Sanford Stadium’s concession stand fundraising-group-of-the-week is almost refreshing in its low-tech anonymity.

Post Claxton drafted, Howard signed

Monday June 24, 2019

Nic Claxton Thursday night became the first Georgia basketball player to be drafted by the NBA since 2013 when he went early in the second round to the Brooklyn Nets. That draft position might be a little disappointing – Claxton had generated quite a bit of first-round chatter and was considered to be one of the prospects on the rise since he announced his intention to enter the draft. It’s still a fairly solid position and evidence of tremendous growth during his time at Georgia, but you wonder if a second-round projection might have affected Claxton’s decision to leave.

Claxton’s early departure left an opening on the Georgia frontcourt, and Tom Crean addressed that opening with the signing of 6’11” Rodney Howard late in May. Howard is a former Ole Miss commitment and Georgia native who chose the Bulldogs over Georgia Tech.

While Howard replaces Claxton numbers-wise, he’s not likely to be a replacement for Claxton’s production or style of play. I think of Howard more as a replacement for Derek Ogbeide. With the incoming talent at guard and wing, there’s less of an urgent need for a stretch 4/5 like Claxton to score away from the basket. Georgia needs interior depth – rebounding, defending the rim, and scoring around the basket. If Howard can help in those areas, he’ll be an asset, and I won’t care if he never attempts a three-pointer.

The backcourt was set earlier in May with the addition of Sahvir Wheeler and Donnell Gresham Jr. Now the frontcourt picture is clearer, though Crean has room to add another grad transfer. Rayshaun Hammonds becomes the returning scoring and rebounding leader. Amanze Ngumezi didn’t see a ton of time as a freshman, but he’ll probably be in line for a much bigger role while Howard comes along. If Georgia wants to go small, there’s a trio of incoming 6’6″ wings whose toughness inside the paint might be tested. It’s clear though that the ability of Hammonds to stay healthy and out of foul trouble will be one of Georgia’s keys to success.

Claxton’s departure and the arrival of Howard means that over half the roster will turn over entering next season. Crean is quick to caution that this is the very definition of rebuilding, and it could temper expectations even with a top 10 class and an elite guard coming in. The nonconference schedule isn’t completely set yet, but we know that Georgia Tech and the Maui Invitational are in November, and the Dawgs will also face Memphis’s top-rated signing class. It could be a fun process watching this talented incoming class grow, but we also have never seen this amount of turnover with so many newcomers counted on. That could lead to frustration as we see glimpses of what’s possible before those individual moments of excellence come together as team success. Expectations for this group will be tricky which is why Crean is already out in front of managing them. He wants to show progress after last season’s step back and must keep the fans engaged as well as he did a year ago, but just as important is keeping the recruiting pipeline full so that any growth this season becomes a foundational building block for bigger things.

Post More like Clemson every day

Wednesday May 29, 2019

A couple of years ago a former baseball letterman wrote one of those open letters sent to local media about the state of Georgia athletics. Football had struggled through Kirby Smart’s first season, and baseball was at a turning point. The thing to do, the letter-writer suggested, was to follow the lead of Clemson – a program celebrating a football national title and opening glittering new facilities left and right.

The problem with that suggestion was the difference between perception and reality. Even with the higher-profile sports underperforming, Georgia’s overall program was a good 30 points higher in the Directors’ Cup standings than Clemson. But because Clemson football had broken through, the perception, according to this letter, was that Georgia had a lot to learn from its rival up I-85.

I bring that up because this post by Blutarsky reminded me of that letter from two years ago and how things have changed in a way that would meet with the approval of its author. Kirby Smart has things rolling. Basketball just pulled in arguably its best recruiting class ever. Gymnastics seems to be on an upswing. The decision to stick with Scott Stricklin has paid off as the Diamond Dawgs are looking at a high national seed in this year’s NCAA tournament. In terms of the overall athletics program though, there’s this reality: “Georgia is 35th in the most recent NACDA Directors’ Cup, which ranked ninth in the SEC. The Bulldogs were 15th in the standings at this point a year ago in the all-sports measurement.”

There are bright individual spots. There always are. Track is a national power. Women’s tennis had a strong season. Several ongoing sports like men’s golf and baseball have an opportunity to earn some hardware. The metric tells us that Georgia’s programs overall are decent with “17 of 21 sports competing in the NCAA postseason,” but it’s not near the usual level of success. I doubt we’ll see impassioned appeals to the media about the state of things this summer. Didn’t you see the latest defensive line commitment?

(Clemson by the way? Down there with Georgia Tech in the 80s.)

Post Want a beer? Get in line now.

Wednesday May 29, 2019

So the SEC is going to review its “decades-old bylaw prohibiting member schools from selling alcohol” at this week’s spring meetings in Destin.

I’m not opposed to the idea of alcohol sales in the stadium, but can Sanford Stadium handle it? I don’t mean the patrons; I’m talking about the neglected infrastructure of areas of the stadium that haven’t been touched since the East stands were added in 1981. I’m trying to visualize how the already-overcrowded concourses of Sanford Stadium would handle beer lines. Navigating the tight East or South concourses for concessions (or anything, really) is already bad enough.

If the plan involves placing beer sales in more open areas in Reed Alley, around Gates 6 and 7, or the West endzone, fine. But this is about revenue, so the temptation won’t be to limit the number of taps or place the majority of them away from where most fans are seated. I have no doubt alcohol sales will happen sooner than later, but I’m going to be very interested in how Georgia implements it. Getting it wrong could be just one more reason to stay at home and enjoy the cold ones from the fridge.

Post Football isn’t brain surgery

Tuesday May 28, 2019

But this is. Yikes.

Freshman quarterback D’Wan Mathis underwent emergency brain surgery last Thursday after an MRI revealed a cyst on his brain.

The surgery was deemed a success, and the prognosis is for a complete recovery. He’ll be closely supervised for some time, and he’ll be on antibiotics for the next month. His availability for preseason camp or even the 2019 season is unknown, but that’s a distant concern next to his well-being. Fortunately this condition was caught in time before more permanent damage was done. Brain surgery isn’t ever minor, and Georgia’s coaches and medical staff will take every precaution. We wish Mathis the best in his recovery.

Post Getting production from Georgia’s most experienced unit

Friday May 17, 2019

Georgia’s not going to have a large senior class in 2019. A quick glance at the roster shows about 14 or 15 rising scholarship seniors. That’s kind of the norm now of course, and the class is smaller than it would have been with several early exits. It’s also revealing about the size of next year’s signing class and why Georgia was able to count two 2019 incoming graduate transfers towards that class.

What stands out among this smaller senior class is that a good chunk of them are defensive linemen. Georgia returns six seniors along the DL next year:

  • Michael Barnett
  • Michail Carter
  • Tyler Clark
  • David Marshall
  • Julian Rochester
  • Justin Young

Not all have started or will start, and younger players like Jordan Davis and Malik Herring have made their case for playing time. But a senior class of that size at one position is a wealth of experience for Tray Scott to work with. (It’s also why Georgia has been incredibly active recruiting defensive linemen for 2019 and 2020.) With all of the attrition from the 2018 team and the graduation of Jonathan Ledbetter, this group of rising seniors remains a bit under the radar. Michael Barnett was slowed during the spring of 2018 by a knee injury. David Marshall was making steady progress since a promising freshman season in 2016 and had a really nice game at South Carolina last year. He was injured during the Vanderbilt game, and his long recovery from a Lisfranc foot injury continued into the spring. Carter, Marshall, and Rochester will miss much if not all of spring practice as they recover from injury or surgery. The injury situation has and will continue to impact depth during spring practice and offseason workouts, but everyone should be available in time for preseason camp.

With so many injuries slowing development and opening the door for younger players to claim playing time, how much production can be expected from the team’s largest group of seniors? Though the defensive line has some of the most veteran players on the roster, not many people consider it one of the team’s stronger units. Few on this list can be said to have had a career arc building towards a breakout senior season. It’s tough to even say how many, if any, will start this year. At the same time, nearly all of these seniors have had impact moments in their first three seasons. The trick this season for the players and coaches is developing those moments into the consistency that will turn into opportunities at the next level. You don’t have to remind anyone that the time for that development is running short.

Perhaps the best news is that Tyler Clark will be back. After a promising sophomore season and a nice performance in the Rose Bowl, Tyler Clark was on most lists of Bulldog juniors likely to consider the 2019 NFL Draft. Clark’s production dropped a bit in 2018 (down to 31 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 sack from 41 tackles, 6 TFL, 2.5 sacks), but remember how the defense changed from 2017 to 2018. Georgia was weaker among the front seven, the pass rush wasn’t as effective, and interior defenders like John Atkins and Roquan Smith weren’t plugging up the inside. Blocking schemes could pay more attention to a good player like Clark. The biggest difference in Clark’s stats came in lower *assisted* tackles. Georgia just wasn’t getting much done behind the line of scrimmage, so there was less for Clark to help clean up. We know what Clark can do, and we’ll see if he and any other defensive linemen are freed up to have a bigger impact this year with a big influx of talent elsewhere among the front seven.

Post Keep your seats, everyone

Thursday May 16, 2019

Some good news on the scheduling front as Georgia announced a series with Oklahoma to follow last month’s announcement of future home-and-home series with Florida State and Clemson. Georgia will head to Tallahassee on Sept. 4, 2027 (sure to be a cool, refreshing early September day in the Panhandle), and the Seminoles will come to Sanford Stadium in 2028. The Clemson series will take place in 2032 and 2033, and that’s on top of a 2024 date already set with the Tigers in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff. The Dawgs will travel to Norman in 2023 with a return date against the Sooners in Athens in 2031. Georgia also has home-and-homes set with UCLA (2025/2026) and Texas (2027/2028), and more still might be in the works.

(If the current SEC scheduling rotation is renewed after 2025, and that’s not a sure thing, Georgia would face FSU, Texas, and Alabama in 2027.)

What interests me as much as whom Georgia will be playing is where they’ll be playing.

The trend has been for the biggest nonconference games to be at neutral sites. Of course there are exceptions, but take Alabama: they haven’t played a P5 opponent at home since Penn State in 2010, but they’re in a major kickoff game nearly every year. And why not? Guarantees for the neutral site games are worth millions of dollars, premium seating can drive ticket prices over $300, and a school like LSU can make around $23 million from seven neutral site games. Sure enough, Georgia will play in three Chick-Fil-A Kickoff games in Atlanta between the 2020 and 2024 seasons. Notre Dame’s trip to Athens in 2019 is the only significant home nonconference game currently on the books between Clemson’s 2014 visit and UCLA’s appearance in 2026.

I’m happy though to see a shift back towards home-and-home series. Alabama will host Texas, West Virginia, Notre Dame, and Oklahoma betwen 2023 and 2033. LSU will host Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona State, and Clemson. Georgia now has five P5 home-and-home series set on top of its annual tilt with Georgia Tech. I’ve said plenty over the past decade about my preference for big games on campus, but you can’t ignore the financial appeal of neutral site games. With potential paydays of $5-$6 million, a school with its eye on the bottom line would be foolish to turn them down. So why the swing back to home-and-home series in the long term?

It’s nothing but a win for fans. You get a big game on campus and all that comes with it, and it’s included in the season ticket package. There’s no separate priority system and additional premium ticket price on top of what you’re already paying. Fans will also have the opportunity to visit several iconic college football towns and stadiums (even if the visiting ticket allotment is ridiculously miserly.) We know that what fans want can be a secondary concern (to put it generously), so where’s the benefit to the football program? Why go home-and-home rather than a single higher-grossing neutral site game? A few reasons come to mind:

  • Recruiting. You can’t host prospects at neutral sites. No one will make more out of the recruiting opportunity offered by a marquee nonconference game than Kirby Smart.
  • Recruiting, part two. The schedule itself becomes a recruiting tool. As Smart said when these series were announced, the best players want to play in big games and big venues. Georgia will have a high-profile nonconference game nearly every year from 2022 through 2033.
  • Your strength of schedule (real or perceived) is improved in two seasons rather than just one.
  • You sustain renewable season ticket sales in anticipation of these games.

As long as fans are selling out the home schedule, some neutral site games can be big revenue boosters. But what if there are more and more empty seats for home games? If there is a nationwide slump in college football attendance, and there seems to be, the incentives begin to change. In the SEC the loss of a season ticket represents the loss of a multi-year revenue stream if the ticket isn’t picked up by someone else. Georgia’s not in that position – yet. There’s still a cutoff for new season tickets. Other schools aren’t as fortunate, and signs of lagging demand are there.

Georgia’s in a position to shore up its demand for renewable tickets, but it means playing better opponents at home. The motivation to buy season tickets goes away if the best games are moved off-campus and aren’t part of the season ticket package. In the eight seasons between 2026 and 2033, Georgia will host UCLA, Clemson, FSU, Texas, and Oklahoma in addition to whatever the SEC slate brings to town. Fans will want those tickets even if it’s just to sell in the secondary market, and the surest way of getting those tickets is by renewing season tickets each year.

Of course ticket demand will be high for these games themselves, but that would be the case if they were held off-campus. If all Georgia cared about was selling tickets to these games, it wouldn’t matter if they were played in Athens or Atlanta. But by attaching these games to the season ticket package, Georgia is able to more or less sustain its season ticket revenue, and the requisite donations of course, even in years without a top-quality home schedule. Fans with renewable season tickets are more likely to hold on to them from year to year if it means guaranteeing a spot for these big nonconference games in the future. A neutral site game might pay out more on a game-to-game basis, but it’s less impressive next to the income represented by sold-out season tickets. There is big money in a steady and strong season ticket renewal rate year over year (and the donations that come with it.)

It’s tough to buck a nationwide attendance trend, and even a more attractive home schedule might not be able to stem the tide of decline. The schedule is just one factor in attracting fans – schools must consider the stadium, amenities, parking, the game day experience, and any edge they can find in competing for entertainment dollars, and these games are still years away. Improving the schedule is a positive step though when combined with a successful team, and it’s something many fans are already anticipating as Kirby Smart continues to build the program into a national contender.

Post Hoop Dawgs backcourt takes shape

Tuesday May 14, 2019

Point guard Sahvir Wheeler, a national top 100 prospect out of Houston, signed with Georgia last week. The signing adds to one of Georgia’s largest and highest-rated classes in program history.

Wheeler’s signing would make news on its own at Georgia in most any year, but you can’t help but place it in the context of Anthony Edwards. Accepting that Edwards will only be at Georgia one year, Crean must maximize Edwards’ production in that year. The window to elevate the Georgia program and raise its profile in the eyes of elite prospects is open now, but it can close just as quickly. What that means in terms of recruiting is that Crean must surround Edwards with the right supporting cast. It would be nice if Claxton returned, and additional post players would help to round out a wonderful class. In the past week though, Georgia has assembled the backcourt it will need to make the most of Edwards’ talents.

Edwards is a capable enough player that he could run the point and be perfectly competent at it. Frankly it would be an upgrade at the position for Georgia, and I still expect to see Edwards handle the ball quite a bit. But Edwards is projected to be at his best as a 2 guard – a shooting guard. Ideally someone else will run the point and allow Edwards to find his shot or penetration lane within the offense. In Wheeler Georgia has found that point guard. Even better, they’ve added depth to the point where Crean will have options. Georgia also announced the addition of Donnell Gresham Jr., a graduate transfer from Northeastern. Gresham might’ve been a stretch as the primary point guard solution, but he’s a great fit when packaged with with Wheeler to round out the backcourt.

Georgia’s backcourt was hit by offseason attrition, but these guard signings provide some clarity and allow you to begin to visualize a reasonable and deep rotation. Wheeler and Gresham can run the point, though Gresham could be looked at more as a combo guard. Edwards will step right in at shooting guard, but Georgia also has experienced shooting guards in Tyree Crump and Jordan Harris with combo guard Tye Fagan also returning. That depth also allows Crean to consider some quicker three-guard lineups, pair Edwards with the sharp-shooting Crump in a smaller lineup, and weather stretches in which Edwards might have to sit.

Crean has one or two scholarships remaining depending on Claxton’s decision, and it’s likely that any more additions will come on the frontcourt. The backcourt seems pretty well set now, though the challenge is obvious: with so many newcomers in key roles, a lot will be asked of them right away. Freshmen focused on adjusting to the college game must also find their role within a roster experiencing unprecedented turnover in a system that’s still new at Georgia. This team will sink or swim right away with Georgia Tech and the Maui Invitational on the schedule in the month of November. It’s encouraging to see so many pieces coming together, but can Crean get them to mesh in time for this impact class to get the early wins it needs to become an NCAA Tournament team?

Post Hunter’s transfer hits hard

Monday April 29, 2019

Redshirt junior linebacker Jaden Hunter has entered the transfer portal. You can’t blame him for “seeking opportunities” to further his career and get on the field somewhere, and the depth chart at Georgia was not looking favorable.

This one stings a bit more than the usual transfer. Hunter’s Bulldog pedigree was as strong as it gets: both mother and father were student-athletes at Georgia, but it went deeper than that. After Brice Hunter’s untimely death, a group of his teammates took it on themselves to be there in Jaden’s life and remained positive influences. Hunter’s commitment video, one of the first of its kind, illustrates those deep bonds to the past. Hunter made it clear that his commitment honored his father and that legacy.

At the time, Hunter’s commitment was an early test of Kirby Smart’s recruiting chops. Hunter had major offers from the SEC and ACC, and Alabama was a big player. Smart absolutely had to get a top in-state prospect with such strong ties to the University, and he did. Hunter’s early endorsement, a little more than a month after Kirby Smart accepted the head coaching job, was part of a solid foundation on top of which the rest of the top-5 2017 class would be built.

So, yeah, this transfer weighs a little heavier than most. This weekend was a boon for the program with over a dozen players drafted by or signing with NFL teams, but Hunter’s transfer is a reminder that it’s a tough and unforgiving sport, and many stories don’t work out the way we’d prefer. Jaden Hunter’s story isn’t over, and we wish him nothing but the best.

Post 2019 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Wednesday March 6, 2019

After two seasons that saw South Carolina win a national title and Mississippi State reach consecutive national championship games, the SEC took a step back this year. According to some metrics, the SEC is arguably only the fifth-best conference in the nation, and no SEC team has done much to build a case against that claim. Mississippi State and South Carolina are still the class of the league, but even they have lacked for impact wins outside of conference play.

When you look at the few accomplishments of SEC teams out of conference, they’re best summed up as good-but-not-great. Mississippi State and Tennessee notched wins over Texas. Auburn beat North Carolina. LSU knocked off FSU. Kentucky beat South Florida. The best SEC nonconference win of the year might be Texas A&M’s defeat of Oregon State. But when matched against some of the top teams in the nation this year – UConn, Oregon, Baylor, and Louisville – SEC teams have come up short. Four SEC teams have been ranked for most of the season (MSU, SC, A&M, and Kentucky) with Missouri drifting in and out. A season ago seven SEC teams were ranked at the end of the regular season with five set to host NCAA subregionals. That won’t happen this year.

As the SEC women’s basketball tournament returns to Greenville, SC, its home for the next three seasons, the state of the conference leaves many teams with work to do in order to impress the NCAA selection committee. Mississippi State and South Carolina will hope that a tournament championship gives them a national seed and regional location favorable for a deep March run. A&M, Kentucky, and Missouri hope that a good showing in Greenville will earn them the right to host the first two rounds. Another tier of teams, including even mighty Tennessee, are just hoping to do enough to make the field of 64, and an early loss for any of those teams could mean disappointment. There will be plenty at stake from the beginning of the Thursday’s second round on through to Sunday’s championship, and that should make for some competitive and entertaining games.

Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:

Wednesday: Bye
Thursday / Second Round: vs. #10 Arkansas: 6:00 pm ET SEC Network
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs. #2 South Carolina: 6:00 pm ET SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: ~7:30 pm ET ESPNU
Sunday / Finals: 2:00 pm ET ESPN2
Complete Bracket Here

The Field

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

1) Mississippi State (15-1, 27-2) (LY-1st, PS-1st): When you have an undefeated regular season, there’s no place to go but down. MSU rode the best class in program history to two straight national title games, and there was some question as to how they’d fare after losing so much from those legendary teams. Who MSU returned though was significant: center Teaira McCowan has taken on the transition from being just one of many weapons on last year’s team to being the focal point of every opponent’s game plan. McCowan hasn’t disappointed: she averages a double-double (17.3 PPG / 13.4 RPG), hits over 65% of her shots, doesn’t foul out, and has blocked 71 shots. She’s among the SEC’s top 5 in scoring and leads the league in rebounding and shotblocking.

The Bulldogs received a big shot in the arm when Texas A&M forward Anriel Howard joined MSU as a graduate transfer. Howard was primarily a rebounding machine at A&M, but she’s worked on her offense this year and is scoring nearly 16 PPG. Howard’s rebounding hasn’t suffered, and she and McCowan pull down half of the team’s boards. Jordan Danberry is another returning player who took on a larger role this year. Danberry isn’t a threat from outside but can be devastating off the dribble attacking the basket. The Bulldogs have had to adjust to a season-ending injury to sharp-shooting Chloe Bibby, and Andra Espinoza-Hunter has responded by averaging around 13 PPG over the past ten games since her minutes increased. Senior PG Jazzmun Holmes has been terrific a with an assist/turnover ratio over 4.

That’s a nice surrounding cast for McCowan, and it’s why MSU has remained a top ten program and SEC champion despite so much attention being paid to its dominant post player. Very few teams have been able to frustrate McCowan, but that’s what it’s taken to beat MSU. Missouri held McCowan to a below-average 4-for-11 shooting performance. Oregon suffocated her and limited McCowan to just five shot attempts and five points. South Carolina came close to a win in the season finale by holding McCowan to just eight attempts, but she hit seven of them and finished with 18 points. That’s the challenge for any team going up against the Bulldogs: can you limit opportunities for McCowan without someone else doing damage? Against better teams with the personnel to defend McCowan, the supporting cast has to be consistent and productive enough to compensate. They haven’t always been.

It’s been a long and successful run in the Victoria Vivians / Teaira McCowan era, but an SEC tournament title has eluded the program. Mississippi State might be as strong of a favorite to finally cut down the nets as they’ll be for a while. Is this the year?

2) South Carolina (13-3, 21-8) (LY-2nd, PS-2nd): Dawn Staley’s program seeks its fifth-straight tournament title, but they’ve fallen back towards the field this year and could face some serious challenges en route to another title defense. Life without A’ja Wilson has had its rough moments, but the result in SEC play is the same as it was a year ago: a second-place finish behind Mississippi State. The difference this year has been South Carolina’s inability to break through against the best teams in the nation. Six of the Gamecocks’ eight losses came to teams ranked in the top 10. Many of those games were competitive, but the results, especially out of conference, leave South Carolina without any national wins of note. They’ve been dominant as ever inside the SEC, losing only to Mississippi State (twice) and Kentucky.

It’s been a transition year for sure, and if you didn’t beat South Carolina this year it might be a while. A loaded signing class rated #1 in the nation will arrive next year. Meanwhile A’ja Wilson’s supporting cast has done well to maintain continuity even if the Gamecocks have been knocked down a peg from the national elite. Staley’s frustration has boiled over at times, and she pulled her entire starting lineup minutes into the Georgia game. The team has gone through scoring droughts and even their wins have been a little closer than they’ve been used to. Still, they’ve had flashes of brilliance, and a tight game against MSU in the regular season finale showed that South Carolina could once again deny Mississippi State the SEC tournament title.

Scoring has been distributed well with no player getting more than 13 PPG. Te’a Cooper is the leading scorer by a small margin, but she’s battled an injury down the stretch. Tyasha Harris has done well as the point guard. The Gamecocks boast a physical frontcourt with Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and Alexis Jennings even if they do miss the inside scoring punch of Wilson. Depth is a strength: nine players score at least 4 PPG, and not many teams can bring the likes of upperclassmen Bianca Cuevas-Moore and Doniyah Cliney off the bench.

3) Texas A&M (12-4, 23-6) (LY-5th, PS-6th): Chennedy Carter took the league by storm a season ago, and she hasn’t let up in her sophomore season. Carter averages over 20 PPG for her career, and no team – not even Missouri – asks more of a player. A&M lost three key players from last year’s team and was projected to finish sixth this season, but Carter has led them to a higher SEC finish in 2019 and the team’s best regular season since 2011. She handles the ball, leads the team in steals, can hit from outside, and can drive to the basket. How valuable is Carter? A&M wasn’t able to beat Lamar without her. That’s not good news – Carter will miss the tournament with a finger injury suffered last Sunday.

A&M will have to rely on a group of players who stepped into new and bigger roles this season. N’dea Jones and Ciera Johnson are a formidable duo on the glass, and the Aggies outrebound opponents by around 7 per game. Kayla Wells moved from the bench to the starting lineup and has become a threat that keeps defenses from keying too much on Carter.

This isn’t a very deep team. Guard Aaliyah Wilson was lost to a knee injury. Only five players average over 2 PPG. But in typical Gary Blair fashion, everyone contributes to defense and rebounding. Carter and Wells can handle the scoring, and Jones and Johnson are able to clean up inside. Missouri, LSU, South Carolina, and Mississippi State were able to match them on the glass, and that kept A&M from competing for a conference title. The Aggies are competing for a national top 16 seed that would make them a host for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. Accomplishing that goal might require a run to the SEC tournament final, but that will be extremely difficult without Carter.

4) Kentucky (11-5, 24-6) (LY-9th, PS-7th): The Wildcats bounced back well this year from a losing record in 2018 – only the second time Kentucky finished out of the top four under Matthew Mitchell. Like A&M, Kentucky exceeded preseason expectations, and a big reason why was the arrival of likely SEC freshman of the year Rhyne Howard. Howard, a 6’2″ wing, is a nightmare matchup problem who became the team’s leading scorer and rebounder as a freshman.

Last season UK had to lean heavily on the scoring of Maci Morris. With Howard, Morris has been able to contribute to a much more well-rounded attack orchestrated by senior point guard Taylor Murray. Kentucky has the backcourt depth they’ve lacked for a couple of years, and it’s allowed Mitchell to play more of the frenzied style of defense he prefers. Forward Tatyana Wyatt can be Kentucky’s scoring presence inside. KeKe McKinney, Kentucky’s best interior defender, missed the season finale due to injury, and her availability will be key if Kentucky advances to meet Mississippi State.

Kentucky enters the tournament on a bit of a run as winners of seven of their last eight games. That stretch included a win over South Carolina, and the only loss was a home setback to A&M. Missouri is their likely quarterfinal opponent, and UK held the potent Missouri attack to just 41 points in Lexington earlier this year.

5) Missouri (21-9, 10-6) (LY-6th, PS-5th): Sophie Cunningham’s swan song has been a muted success. Missouri has been on the outside of the rankings for much of the season, but they did claim the season’s most impressive win with a road victory at Mississippi State. As one of the few teams that fell in line with preseason expectations, the Tigers are where most thought they’d be. How they got there is more interesting: Mizzou has the win over MSU, but they also have one of the more inexplicable losses of the year against Florida.

Cunningham made an immediate impact as a freshman, and she’s remained one of the SEC’s most consistent performers for all four seasons. At 6’1″, Cunningham can play outside or inside posting up smaller guards. SEC fans know she’s not afraid to do the dirty work, and she’s second on the team in rebounding. The team got a boost midseason when senior forward Cierra Porter rejoined the team after stepping away due to chronic knee problems. A key player this season has been wing Amber Smith. Smith averages over 12 PPG, leads the team in rebounding, and seems poised to inherit the leadership role when Cunningham and Porter move on next season.

Missouri no longer leads the SEC in three-point attempts – Arkansas and Florida have attempted more. But Missouri again leads the conference in three-pointers made. Six players have made at least 20 three-pointers. One thing to watch out for with Missouri in turnovers. They were already near the bottom of the league in turnovers and then freshman guard Akira Levy, a key ballhandler off the bench, was lost for the season at Auburn.

6) Auburn (9-7, 21-8) (LY-10th, PS-8th): Stingy defense and a smothering press have been the hallmarks of nearly every Terri Williams-Flournoy Auburn team. The offense hasn’t always come along, and that’s held the program back. That’s changed this year: the Auburn offense has improved enough to turn those defensive stops into scoring opportunities, and wins have followed. The Tigers reached 20 wins for the first time under Williams-Flournoy in a season that might’ve been pivotal in her future at Auburn. Auburn looked like an iffy NCAA tournament team for most of the season, but late wins over Missouri and LSU have made them a likely invitee.

Senior Janiah McKay is the closest thing the Tigers have to a standout player, but their top five scorers are all between 13.8 and 9.8 PPG. Four of those top scorers also have at least 50 steals, showing how much the lines are blurred between defense and offense on this team. Auburn won’t attempt a ton of outside shots, though Daisa Alexander is always a threat to hit a three-pointer. They’re most at home scoring in transition created by their pressure defense. Auburn played Texas A&M to within two points earlier in the season, and Auburn won’t be afraid of a potential rematch in the quarterfinals especially without Chennedy Carter on the court.

7) Georgia (9-7, 18-11) (LY-3rd, PS-4th): Joni Taylor made a name for herself in her first three seasons as Georgia’s coach by exceeding expectations. Last year the Lady Dogs tied for second place in the SEC and earned a national top 16 seed. With a leading scorer returning and an impact freshman class maturing, the expectation for this year was only a slight step back. Georgia began the year ranked in the top 20.

Though Georgia kept alive slim hopes for a fourth-place finish until the final day of the regular season, it hasn’t been the season many expected of Georgia. Injuries played a role, but even key starters have struggled with turnovers and foul trouble all season. Georgia’s conference record is partially a factor of schedule: the Lady Dogs’ three home-and-home opponents are all seeded 10th or lower, and five of Georgia’s nine conference wins came against that group. So Georgia’s 7-seed is just about right. They haven’t defeated anyone seeded higher, and they’ve only lost one game (minus point guard Taja Cole) to teams seeded below them.

Even with a winning record in conference, Georgia will likely have to win the SEC tournament to return to the NCAA tournament. The Lady Dogs head to Greenville with an RPI below 100. That’s a result of a weak schedule and no wins against the few quality teams on that schedule. Winning the tournament is a big job, but there is at least a couple of reasons for hope. Georgia might not have beaten the best opponents on its schedule, but the Lady Dogs have been competitive. They took Maryland to the final minute, led in the fourth quarter on the road at both Mississippi State and South Carolina, and had opportunities to beat A&M and Kentucky in Athens. To advance in this tournament Georgia must find something that’s been missing nearly all season – the players able and willing to take over these competitive close games. Another reason for optimism is that Georgia played their best basketball at the end of the season. They won five of their last seven with narrow losses to quality South Carolina and Kentucky teams. Georgia should at least be confident each time they take the court in Greenville.

Georgia has just one senior, forward Caliya Robinson, and they lean on her at both ends of the court. Robinson is the team’s leading scorer, rebounder, shotblocker, and is even third on the team in assists and steals. PG Taja Cole leads the SEC in assists and, after only two years, is already among the top five in career assists at Georgia. Cole can also get to the basket, hit a big outside shot, and often draws the team’s most difficult defensive assignment. Given their importance to the team, it’s unfortunate that Robinson and Cole also commit the most fouls. Cole is an aggressive on-ball defender who leads Georgia in steals but sometimes finds herself taken out of a game early due to foul trouble. Robinson, as is the case with so many outstanding shotblockers, sometimes takes herself out of good defensive position in order to set up for a block, and crafty shooters can use that to draw fouls. Turnovers have also been a problem for Georgia. The team is in the bottom third of the league in turnovers, and they’ve struggled against pressure. The Lady Dogs are actually third in the SEC in shooting percentage, but too often they’ve turned the ball over before getting a shot off. For Georgia to advance, they’ll need to keep the turnovers down and to have both Robinson and Cole valuing their foul count and available as much as possible.

8) Tennessee (7-9, 18-11) (LY-7th, PS-3rd): Wow. Apart from identifying the final potential NCAA tournament #1 seed, the dominant national story in February was whether the Lady Vols would miss the Big Dance for the first time in tournament history. The Lady Vols are the only program to have participated in every tournament, and that distinction is on thin ice. They seemed to have saved themselves with a sweep of Auburn and a win at Missouri, but an inexplicable home loss to Vanderbilt in the final week might have the Lady Vols disappointed on Selection Monday.

Tennessee’s issue is a common one for SEC teams this season: a lack of quality wins. The Lady Vols are just 1-6 against ranked opponents, and a win over Texas is the lone feather in their cap. Their nonconference schedule wasn’t bad, but they fell to Stanford and Notre Dame in the rare opportunities they had to make a national statement. I don’t think anyone was prepared for the six-game losing streak in January that shocked the nation and left Tennessee at 1-5 in conference. They’ve fought back to salvage their NCAA tournament chances, but February losses to Mississippi State and Texas A&M show that their resurgence was more a factor of opponent quality rather than a program turning a corner.

As usual, Tennessee is at the top of the conference in rebounding, and their attacking defensive style hasn’t changed. If you had to put a finger on the reason for their struggles this year, it’s a lack of veteran leadership. Even last season’s team had Jamie Nared to turn to. Senior Meme Jackson has fallen off in conference play and has only reached double figures twice since the conference opener. Tennessee’s three leading scorers are underclassmen, and that’s led to some prolonged scoring droughts. Sophomore point guard Evina Westbrook leads the team in scoring and assists. Rennia Davis averaged over 11 PPG as a freshman, but she has only made small improvement as a sophomore. Tennessee also hasn’t replaced the impact of Mercedes Russell inside. Senior forward Cheridene Green averages under 10 PPG, and Rennia Davis, a wing, is right up there as the team’s leading rebounder.

Tennessee is talented, but their finish in the standings means they’ll be facing Mississippi State if they can advance beyond Thursday. Their season and a piece of women’s college basketball history could be on the line in that game.

9) LSU (7-9, 16-12) (LY-4th, PS-9th): LSU is also right about where we expected they would be. Their style is typical of most Nikki Fargas teams – tough matchup zone defense, physical interior play, and almost all of the offense coming inside the paint. LSU’s problem is one they’ve faced quite a bit recently: scoring. Only Florida and Ole Miss score less, and even the best defenses need to put points on the board. When the system works, the Tigers are capable of wins over teams like FSU and Texas A&M. It’s equally capable of some ugly low point totals including a 46-point showing in the season finale at home against Auburn.

The Tigers dropped their final three games of the season and find themselves in a virtual play-in game against Tennessee for a spot in the NCAA tournament.

10) Arkansas (6-10, 17-13) (LY-13th, PS-11th): A 5-2 start in conference play highlighted by a win at Tennessee had everyone talking about Arkansas as a surprise team perhaps a bit ahead of schedule in Mike Neighbors’ second season. Neighbors imported his entertaining up-tempo brand of offense from Washington, and the roster is beginning to resemble what he needs to run that kind of system. That early momentum crashed to a halt during a six-game losing streak bookended by losses to Georgia. Arkansas was able to get a win over Ole Miss but finished the season losing eight of their last nine. This is still a dangerous team because of the way they can score. The offense is capable of putting pressure on opponents to keep up. Chelsea Dungee transferred in from Oklahoma to become the team’s leading scorer and is second in the league behind only Chennedy Carter. Dungee and Malica Monk form a capable backcourt, but Arkansas has six players who have attempted at least 70 three-pointers. Almost anyone is capable of stepping out and knocking one down, and that’s what makes the team fun to watch and dangerous to defend. The consistency (and defense) isn’t quite there yet, and that’s turned a promising start into another step in the rebuilding process.

11) Alabama (5-11, 13-16) (LY-8th, PS-10th): On a team that lost so much production due to graduation, one of the SEC’s most exciting newcomers is in Tuscaloosa. Cierra Johnson, last season’s JUCO player of the year, made an immediate impact and became Bama’s leading scorer. Johnson is Alabama’s Chennedy Carter: she can take over a game and score from outside or attacking the basket. Forward Jasmine Walker has had some big moments as a frontcourt complement to Johnson, but Walker’s production has been less consistent against better opponents. PG Jordan Lewis was lost to injury earlier in the season, and it’s been the team’s downfall. Alabama leads the SEC in turnovers, and Johnson has often been a victim of the turnover bug as so much of the offense is forced to flow through her. Though the program didn’t completely recover from losing so many seniors from the 2018 team, the Tide’s quality has shown up in several decent wins against Clemson, Virginia, Tennessee, and Georgia as well as a 3-point loss at South Carolina.

12) Ole Miss (3-13, 9-21) (LY-14th, PS-14th): Ole Miss moved out of the basement with a nice stretch in January that saw consecutive wins over Kentucky (in Lexington!) and Florida. They were only able to win one game the rest of the way, against last-place Vanderbilt, and they head to Greenville on a five-game losing streak. Crystal Allen is one of the SEC’s top scorers with over 18 PPG, and Shandricka Sessom returned from an injury to close out her career.

13) Florida (3-13, 7-22) (LY-11th, PS-12th): It’s been a tough year in Gainesville with only seven total wins. Senior Funda Nakkasoglu is a dangerous scorer, but the rest of the roster lacks firepower. Only Arkansas attempts more three-pointers, but Florida only shoots 30.2% from outside. The result is one of the lowest-scoring teams in the league and a single-digit win total. Delicia Washington has a knack for hitting big shots, and Danielle Rainey can be feast or famine.

14) Vanderbilt (7-22, 2-14) (LY-12th, PS-13th): Stephanie White’s third season didn’t fare much better than the first two. The team’s most competitive stretch came in late January with a two-point loss to Auburn and a win over Ole Miss. A shocking win at Tennessee – the program’s first win ever in Knoxville – was a noteworthy accomplishment in an otherwise disappointing season. Boston College transfer Mariella Fasoula has stepped in to become the team’s leading scorer. That’s a credit to her, but it doesn’t speak well of the production from a couple of decent recruiting classes. Scoring defense is a big reason why Vandy is at the bottom of the conference; the Commodores yield nearly 70 PPG.