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Post Georgia hoops enters the post-Frazier world

Monday March 20, 2017

It was pretty cut-and-dried for the Georgia men’s basketball team: this was a squad expected to make the NCAA Tournament and finish among the top four in the SEC. With anticipation for a step forward building since the end of the 2016 season, Georgia instead took a small step back and left some big questions for the future of the program.

Nonconference losses to Clemson, Marquette, and Oakland put the team’s postseason goals in doubt even before conference play started. Those losses, and the lack of quality wins, meant that Georgia’s margin for error in the SEC was slim. They did themselves no favor with a 4-7 start in league play. The Bulldogs got back to around .500 in conference, but it became increasingly clear that Georgia would have to knock off a team like Kentucky to sway the selection committee. Georgia had three opportunities to take down the Wildcats and came achingly close in two of them, but the signature win Georgia needed against Kentucky – or any team – remained just out of reach.

It seems as if Georgia’s misfortune in close games became a theme after the loss at Texas A&M. They’d just had an overtime loss at Florida. They’d follow those games up with narrow defeats at Kentucky and South Carolina. It’s true that a couple of wins in those games – especially road wins at Kentucky or Florida – very likely would have changed the team’s postseason fate and made for a much brighter evaluation of the season. It was a close margin between disappointment and meeting expectations, but there were also specific and reoccurring issues that led to those losses. Free throws. Ball handling. Shot selection. The collapse at A&M involved all of those things, and the clock issue that decided the game was just one more thing on top of the last ten minutes of horror that saw a double-digit lead evaporate. Shell-shocked by the loss and still fixated on the ending, the season reached its low point in the subsequent game against Alabama in which the coach was ejected and the team was blown out in a winnable game.

When you’re as close to the tournament as Georgia has been over the past two seasons, you can point to any number of small things that made the difference. In 2015-2016, the injury to Juwan Parker cost the team not only Paker’s productivity but also forced Charles Mann to play a bit out of position. In 2016-2017, the story might well be the inability of a young backcourt to replace the production of Mann and Kenny Gaines. Gaines and Mann accounted for 13.2 and 10.9 PPG as seniors. The trio of Jordan Harris (4.7), Turtle Jackson (4.1), and Tyree Crump (3.5) didn’t even replace Gaines’s points, let alone Mann’s.

It’s true that Georgia got improved play elsewhere: Parker was solid and Edwards took a step forward. Ogbeide had his moments. Even Frazier bumped up his scoring. Frazier shouldering more of the load told the tale: only Frazier and Maten averaged in double figures, and the team struggled to find consistent scoring options when they were out of the game. When Maten went down, the answer was more Frazier. Frazier ended up with a wonderful career and arguably deserved a happier ending. His will to win reminded fans of Sundiata Gaines in 2008, and the joy he had playing for Georgia made him one of the most beloved players to take the court in Athens.

But even as Frazier held the team together down the stretch, his shooting struggled. The senior only had one game after Maten’s injury (Auburn) in which he hit more than one three-pointer, and he only hit a single outside shot (against Tennessee) in three postseason games. He did his damage by drawing fouls and converting free throws. That made the difference against lesser teams like Auburn and LSU, but the diminished perimeter offense led to the team losing three of its last four games.

So the questions entering the 2017-2018 season start from the backcourt. The team has a single guard, combo G Teshaun Hightower, committed in the current class. It’s going to fall to Harris, Jackson, and Crump to run the offense and produce much of the outside shooting. Jackson, a rising junior, especially must improve if he’s going to be the point guard. Wings Parker, Wilridge, and Diatta are also going to have to step up to replace some of Frazier’s perimeter scoring. The strength of the team, depending on Yante Maten’s NBA draft status, should be its frontcourt. Maten will be the anchor if he returns, but Ogbeide and Edwards are coming on. Georgia will also add forward Rayshaun Hammonds, a top 100 national prospect. Expect that frontcourt to face sagging zone defenses until Georgia demonstrates a consistent perimeter threat.

Georgia loses only Frazier and a handful of reserves, so a nice core returns, and expectations will be close to what they were for 2017. It might not even be enough to meet those expectations. When the program has to issue a statement about the coaching situation while the season is in progress, you know that there’s a lot riding on the upcoming season.

The biggest challenge for Georgia basketball remains the same as it ever was: recruiting. The speculation about Fox’s future can’t help recruiting, but it’s unavoidable. Fox will have to succeed under those conditions, and he’ll have to convince prospects that he will be successful enough to be around when they get to Athens. The early signing period will have come and gone before we play much of the 2018 season, but a lot of eyes from Athens to high school gyms will be on Georgia’s ability to get back to the tournament in 2018.


Post Lady Dogs pass a low bar

Friday March 10, 2017

In our season preview of the Lady Dogs, it wasn’t hard to conclude that “it looks like a transitional year and one in which Georgia will be considered more of a spoiler than a contender.” Georgia lost five seniors and took the recruiting hit of a coaching change leaving a sparse roster. Preseason polls had the team 12th out of 14 SEC teams, and a finish in that range likely meant a losing record and a good chance that Georgia wouldn’t advance beyond the play-in games at the conference tournament.

Going by those expectations, the Lady Dogs overachieved in Joni Taylor’s second season as head coach. They finished eighth in the SEC, advanced to the SEC quarterfinals, won five games against teams invited to the NCAA Tournament, and – perhaps most significantly – preserved the program’s legacy of winning records with a 16-15 campaign. The team still missed out on the postseason for the second time in three years, but it’s fairly impressive that they were even in the bubble discussion up through the final week of the season.

Five things can account for much of Georgia’s relative success:

  1. Solid defense. Offense was never going to be the calling card of this team, and the defense was good enough to keep them competitive in most games. Georgia gave up a respectable 62.4 PPG, and they often had a chance to win if the score was in the 50s.
  2. Pachis Roberts’s development into a consistent scorer. We knew Roberts could score, but that ability became something the team could count on to carry it through some of the team’s bigger wins. She earned a second team All-SEC selection for her outstanding senior year.
  3. The team remained fairly healthy. Injuries had been a big story in each of the past two seasons, but few games were missed this year due to injury. The loss of a starter for the third straight year would have been devastating for a team that only went eight deep.
  4. Returning players stepped up. Georgia didn’t have a ton of experience returning, and Robinson lost her starting role during the team’s slump, but Robinson and Engram joined Roberts as the only players averaging at least ten points per game. Those three were considered the foundation of this year’s team, and they played like it.
  5. Role players emerged. Armbrister grew more confident in her shooting. Costa served as a capable reserve at both guard spots. The lone freshman, Stephanie Paul, eventually earned a starting job.

To say that a winning record and avoiding the play-in games were legitimate achievements for this team shows the state of the program and reminds us why a coaching change was unfortunately necessary two years ago. Those marginal accomplishments are fine if this is the low water mark, but expectations will start to build soon. If maintaining the winning record streak was a goal of the past season, next year’s initial goal is a step up from that: Georgia has never missed the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons. Taylor’s first squad preserved that distinction, but they’ll be right back under the gun next season. Going further, Georgia hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game or finished higher than sixth in the SEC since the Elite Eight run in 2013. Those are the standards that have been set for the program, and Taylor now begins the job of getting Georgia back to that level after surviving the difficult 2016-2017 season.

On paper next year’s team should be much better. The seniors – Roberts in particular – will be missed, but six players will be added to the roster, and several of them should be looked to for immediate impact. 6’5″ center Bianca Blanaru should at the very least give Georgia a true post presence and create more favorable matchups for forwards like Robinson. Louisville transfer Taja Cole is a former McDonald’s All-American, and I’d be surprised if she isn’t the starting point guard. Cole, though prevented from playing by the transfer rules, became one of the more vocal and enthusiastic teammates on the bench and might also step into a leadership role in the future. Those two impact transfers are in addition to a Top 10 recruiting class that stocks the backcourt with three guard prospects rated 4* or higher and a 4* 6’3″ post player. Each member of the class is ranked in the top 15 at their position nationally with three among the top 10 at their position. Georgia might look to add to this class during the spring signing period.

The infusion of talent allows for a much more versatile attack. Georgia’s 8-deep roster wasn’t just limited by talent. The thin bench meant that Georgia couldn’t customize its approach based on the weaknesses of the opponent. Inevitable foul problems further dictated which five were on the court, and a zone was often required even when it wasn’t the optimal defense. Taylor’s first challenge will be building a team out of players who, for the most part, have never played together. Cole and Blanaru at least practiced this year, but Taylor will have to find out the best combinations of those two, the returning players, and the four impact freshmen.

The SEC isn’t getting any easier. We’ve seen ascendant programs at South Carolina and Mississippi State crowd out perennial powers like Georgia and LSU. Kentucky and A&M aren’t going away, and Missouri broke through this year. Tennessee has been down, but they welcome the nation’s top recruiting class. SEC cash has allowed high-profile hires at Vanderbilt and Arkansas. Even Alabama, often found near the bottom of the standings, knocked off Tennessee twice and returns their entire roster. The deeper and more talented roster will allow Georgia to remain competitive, but it’s going to be a long road back to challenge for a top four finish, much less a conference title. If Taylor can continue to recruit well and produce incremental improvements each year, she’ll have Georgia back in the discussion.


Post 2017 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Wednesday March 1, 2017

This is our eleventh preview of the SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament, and it’s been interesting to watch the evolution of the conference over that time. The addition of Texas A&M had an immediate impact, and Missouri has started to make their mark. You don’t have to go back through many of our previews to find South Carolina and Mississippi State among the bottom half (if not bottom quarter) of the conference. That they’ve turned things around and displaced perennial favorites like Tennessee, LSU, and Georgia shows the kind of turnover that can happen in a competitive league as resources begin to equalize, media coverage becomes universal, and a new wave of ambitious coaches tries to take what once belonged to the conference’s old guard.

Vic Schaefer took over Mississippi State in 2012-2013 and is already the program’s 2nd-winningest coach. He took two seasons to rebuild the program, posted consecutive 11-5 conference records in 2015 and 2016, and came up just short of the regular season title in his fifth season. That follows on the heels of Dawn Staley’s own meteoric rise as she built the Gamecocks from an afterthought into the four-time defending regular season champions.

The top of the league has been fairly airtight this year, but some cracks are showing. South Carolina and Mississippi State distinguished themselves early, and the only question was which team would win the regular season title. The Gamecocks won the head-to-head meeting, but Mississippi State had a chance to win at least a share of the title until the final game. The biggest upset of the season might be Missouri over South Carolina, but Mizzou has been ranked (or close to it) all season. Tennessee’s win at South Carolina was also a shock, but is a Tennessee win ever really an upset? South Carolina should be expected to be playing for the title on Sunday, but can Mississippi State snap out of a recent funk to join them? That side of the bracket could get wild if the #2-seed Bulldogs can’t refocus.

Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:

Wednesday: Bye
Thursday / Second Round: #8 Georgia vs. #9 Auburn: Noon ET SEC Network
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs. #1 South Carolina: Noon ET SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: 5:00 pm ET ESPNU
Sunday / Finals: 3:00 pm ET ESPN2
Complete Bracket Here

The Field:

1) South Carolina (14-2, 24-4) (LY-1): Their odds of winning the conference seemed long after an upset loss at Missouri, but they bounced back to win their final two games while Mississippi State faded. After the dust cleared Sunday, the Gamecocks won their fourth consecutive regular season conference title. Only Tennessee from 1998-2004 has had a longer run at the top. Now the team looks for a third-straight SEC Tournament title – a feat previously only accomplished by, you guessed it, Tennessee.

Any discussion of South Carolina must start with the frontcourt of Alaina Coates and A’ja Wilson. The duo has been dominant even though Coates has battled foul trouble and injuries. Few do the high-low game any better. Consistency at guard has been an issue for the Gamecocks. Transfers Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis are known as prolific scorers, but they’ve disappeared at times or, worse, contributed to inefficient offense with poor shot selection. Bianca Cuevas-Moore is an x-factor who can dart to the basket or pull up for a big outside shot.

South Carolina has cranked out the wins again this season, but they’ve been tougher to come by. One reason is depth. They really need Coates and Wilson on the court at the same time to be at peak production. I don’t know if “leadership” is the right word, but the team has missed the steadying influence of a veteran like Tiffany Mitchell. Wilson is the often the best player on the court, but she has to get the ball. Make no mistake: this is an extremely talented team, and they’re the favorites to repeat as champions for the third time. South Carolina now occupies the territory Tennessee once held. They’re used to taking everyone’s best shot and have the most experience making deep tournament runs. They’re only 100 miles from home and should have plenty of crowd support. I wouldn’t bet against them, but you wonder who’s going to get the ball at the end of a close game.

2) Mississippi State (13-3, 27-3) (LY-3): A week ago Mississippi State had an outright lead for the regular season title and a probable #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They dropped their final two regular season games, lost out on even a share of the conference title, and they’d have to win the conference tournament to have a chance at a top NCAA seed. Did they wilt under the pressure? That’s possible, but they also faced a pair of good teams. The Bulldogs started 20-0, and a controversial close loss at South Carolina was their only blemish until the final week of the season. MSU rolled through much of their schedule, and they have impressive wins against Texas and at Tennessee.

Junior forward Victoria Vivians has been a top performer since she arrived in Starkville. Vic Schaefer has built up the surrounding cast, and defenses can’t focus solely on Vivians. Morgan William is a slashing guard who can get to the rim and draw fouls or hit the occasional outside shot. The frontcourt of Teaira McCowan, Chinwe Okorie, and Breanna Richardson is formidable. This is a deep squad that can spread it around featuring seven players averaging at least 7 PPG and ten players seeing at least 12 minutes per game. At crunch time, though, Vivians wants the ball and more often than not can make good things happen.

A couple weeks ago there was no hotter team in the SEC. It’s been a rough past two weeks though with a pair of close calls against Georgia and Texas A&M and then the losses to Kentucky and Tennessee. The Bulldogs will still earn a high NCAA seed, but they’ll need a strong showing in Greenville to gain back the confidence and momentum they’ll need for a deep NCAA run. They arguably face the easiest path to the championship game of the four top seeds. It will take much better play than they’ve shown lately to get there.

3) Missouri (11-5, 21-9) (LY-8): A five-game winning streak propelled the Tigers to a double-bye and their best finish as an SEC member. They’re arguably the hottest team entering the tournament. As with other recent Mizzou teams, they’re productive from the outside. Robin Pingeton has an experienced team that plays sound basketball. They lead the league in free throw percentage. Once again no SEC team has attempted more three-pointers, and they’re hitting almost 36%. In terms of SEC WBB, Missouri is the new Vanderbilt.

Sophie Cunningham was SEC Freshman of the Year last season and has only improved as she matures into a team leader and an SEC star. She has help: Cierra Porter is an impressive presence inside who will make teams pay for focusing on outside shooters like Sierra Michaelis who has attempted nearly 200 three-pointers. Missouri’s success is even more remarkable considering they lost a pair of veteran forwards to injury prior to the season. Jordan Frericks was the team’s second-leading scorer behind Cunningham, and Porter has done a fantastic job anchoring a depleted frontcourt.

The Tigers have been in and out of the rankings all season, but their current winning streak featuring an upset of South Carolina has them trending up. Missouri’s problem has been finding success away from home. The Tigers are a stellar 15-1 at home but just a pedestrian 6-8 in other arenas. They have won two road games during their current winning streak. Whether they’ve figured out how to play at a high level will be tested right away. They’ll probably face a good Texas A&M team on Friday, and Missouri won that regular season meeting by just two points in Columbia.

4) Kentucky (11-5, 20-9) (LY-5): We’re used to seeing the Wildcats at or near the top of the standings. Matthew Mitchell’s squad is once again among the class of the league, and it’s been a pretty remarkable coaching job to have them among the top four this year. The Wildcats were hit with a slew of transfers during the offseason, forcing Mitchell to adapt his style of play. The Cats aren’t especially deep due to the attrition which hinders the frenetic pace and trapping defense that Mitchell prefers, but this team can still do damage in a halfcourt game. Kentucky hasn’t faltered against the lower two-thirds of the conference, and they’ve notched wins over Missouri and Mississippi State. Seniors Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator are just the kind of dependable and productive players you want your seniors to be, but Taylor Murray, Maci Morris, and Jaida Roper are a trio of underclassman guards providing important contributions to balance the scoring. No one will have a tougher path to the finals with Tennessee and South Carolina in their way.

5) Tennessee (10-6, 19-10) (LY-7): It’s been a maddeningly inconsistent year for the Lady Vols. They’ve managed wins over four top ten teams yet lost to Virginia Tech, Georgia, Alabama, Ole Miss, and Auburn. This follows a year in which the Lady Vols made a run to the Elite Eight after coming close to missing the tournament. The wins show that they have the talent to compete with anyone, and the losses show some serious issues with depth beyond a few key contributors. Diamond DeShields has improved each season and is good enough to carry this team deep into the tournament. This is her team. Mercedes Russell is an elite talent at center. Jamie Nared is the kind of scrappy and clutch player you often associate with Tennessee. If the Lady Vols can get production from those three (and occasionally Jordan Reynolds), they can beat most teams. They won at South Carolina with their three key players scoring 64 of the team’s 76 points. If that production isn’t there, they can struggle.

Tennessee will have their usual large tournament crowd behind them, and they know how to play in big games. If they advance to the quarterfinals, they’ve defeated the three teams likely standing between them and the championship. Then again, they’ve lost to their most likely second round opponent (Alabama). It’s been that kind of year. Still, would anyone be surprised to see them playing on Saturday or even Sunday?

6) Texas A&M (9-7, 19-10) (LY-2): A&M has sort of faded from the national scene after challenging for the conference title a few years ago, but they’re still hanging around and capable of advancing to at least Saturday in the tournament. An early win over 2016 national runner-up Syracuse stands out, but that came a day after a loss to Dayton. They’ve notched wins over Tennessee and Kentucky, but they enter the postseason on a four-game slide that knocked them out of a double-bye all the way down to the 6-seed. Gary Blair will have his team ready to play their trademark tough defense, but they’ll have to pull out of their tailspin quickly to advance beyond Thursday. Danni Williams is the team’s leading scorer and gives the Aggies an outside threat. Forward Khaalia Hillsman adds over 16 PPG inside. Curtyce Knox is another scoring threat at guard, and Taylor Cooper is hitting nearly 42% of her three-pointers.

7) LSU (8-8, 19-10) (LY-13): The Tigers have been quietly competent this year after a 13th-place finish last year, though some late losses to Vanderbilt and Georgia pulled them back to the middle of the pack. The offense flows through a pair of talented guards. Raigyne Moncrief and Chloe Jackson can score anywhere inside the arc and aren’t afraid to get to the rim. You won’t see many three-pointers from these Tigers – Auburn and Missouri have attempted about four times as many. This isn’t a tall team, but forward Alexis Hyder is a physical presence inside. LSU will show token pressure, and their lack of size means that they must be aggressive in halfcourt defense. The Tigers lead the conference in steals, but opponents can have success inside if they handle the pressure.

8) Georgia (7-9, 15-14) (LY-6): It’s been an impressive coaching job by Joni Taylor to have her team in this position. The Lady Dogs were picked to finish 12th preseason as they faced the challenge of replacing a strong senior class with a limited roster of only eight scholarship players. A 2-6 start in league play seemed to validate those preseason expectations, but Georgia turned it around by winning five of their final eight games. Georgia has lived on the edge: three of those five wins came in overtime, and the Lady Dogs are 6-1 in close games. Does that mean they’ve won a few that could have gone the other way? Sure, but Georgia made the plays to win those games, and the emergence of some key players led to those wins.

Wing Pachis Roberts took an important step forward as a senior, more than doubling her 7 PPG average a season ago. Roberts had big games before this season, but she’s been much more consistent and now leads the team in scoring. Sophomore Caliya Robinson adds 14 PPG and continues to show flashes of the talent that led to her SEC All-Freshman selection last season. Robinson can be a dominant forward and has taken over several games this season, but she also struggled with some midseason consistency and can take herself out of games with foul trouble. Taylor has settled on bringing Robinson in off the bench and starting Georgia’s lone freshman Stephanie Paul. Mackenzie Engram is back from the ailment that ended her sophomore season, and she can also put up big numbers as a versatile forward that can run the court, post up, or hit the outside jumper. Georgia is at their best when Roberts and Robinson are productive, and it usually takes at least one more player having a good night for Georgia to be successful. Often that’s Engram, but wing Shanea Armbrister can come up big too.

Even with their best players contributing, Georgia leans on their defense. The Lady Dogs are last in the league in scoring at 62.8 PPG, and they need the score to be in the 50s or low 60s in order to have a chance. That defense has been a big part of Georgia’s better-than-expected finish, though the biggest weakness for a team with such a thin bench has been foul trouble. Turnovers can also be a problem for this team as guard play isn’t a strength. That’s a concern in their opening game: they turned it over 22 times in this season’s win at Auburn.

9) Auburn (7-9, 17-13) (LY-9): One of the mysteries of the season has been the disappearance of the Auburn offense. The Tigers averaged nearly 75 PPG in their five SEC wins, but they struggled to reach 60 during a long slump towards the end of the year. They won two in a row at the end of the season after dropping eight of nine. Few teams are as top-heavy as the Tigers. Guards Katie Frerking, Brandy Montgomery, and Janiah McKay combine for 43 of the team’s 63 points per game. No other player averages more than 4.2 PPG. Auburn’s guard-heavy offense shoots more three-pointers than any team but Missouri, but Auburn is shooting less than 30% from outside. The spotty Auburn offense is often helped by their defense – a tough press that falls back into a tight matchup zone that extends beyond the arc. This frenzied defense often leads to turnovers and points: Auburn is second in the nation in turnovers forced (>22 per game) and also second in turnover margin. Auburn is clinging to the NCAA Tournament bubble, and that desperation could be an extra edge.

10) Ole Miss (6-10, 17-12) (LY-14): With wins over Tennessee, Georgia, and Texas A&M, the Rebels clearly can punch above their weight. That said, they’ve also been on the wrong side of several blowouts and can give up a lot of points. They’ve won only two games away from home, but a strong 15-3 home record was just enough to earn a first round bye and avoid playing on Wednesday. There’s no real standout player, but the Rebels will need big games from Madinah Muhammad and Shandricka Sessom. Alissa Alston can do damage off the bench, and Taylor Manuel and Shelby Gibson can push around teams without physical post players of their own. Ole Miss is near the top of the league in steals and forced turnovers, so their opening game against LSU should provide a good contest between teams who depend on their ability to generate turnovers.

11) Florida (5-11, 14-15) (LY-4): The Gators started the season ranked, but the December departure of leading scorer Eleanna Christinaki sent Florida reeling. They lost their first five SEC games and were just 2-8 after ten conference games. They finished 3-3 down the stretch and gave Missouri and Tennessee close games in a losing effort. They managed to sweep two games against Georgia but have no other wins against teams outside of the play-in games. Senior Ronni Williams took the team on her back and gets nearly 20 points per game. They’ve asked a lot of freshman Delicia Washington, and Washington has responded with over 11 PPG. Brooke Copeland can get hot from outside. Forward Haley Lorenzen can rebound and extend defenses with her range. The Gators have struggled with turnovers, leading the league with over 18 turnovers per game.

12) Alabama (5-11, 17-12) (LY-12): Alabama notched wins over Missouri, Tennessee, and a sweep of Ole Miss. Their 17 wins is the high water mark under coach Kristy Curry, but they’ve had difficulty turning those few noteworthy wins into more sustained success. Meoshonti Knight leads the Tide in scoring, but no player averages over 11.3 PPG. Scoring is spread around with seven players averaging over 6 PPG. Hannah Cook is a very good all-around player who can drill nearly 35% of her three-pointers and also pull down over 5 rebounds per game. Guard Jordan Lewis has been one of the top freshman in the SEC, starting every game and taking home SEC Freshman of the Week honors five times. Forward Shaquera Wade was a key recruit two years ago and is capable of a big game. Alabama isn’t a very big team, but everyone contributes on the glass. They’re second only to Tennessee in total rebounds.

13) Vanderbilt (4-12, 14-15) (LY-11): It was a tough initiation into the SEC for new coach Stephanie White. The Commodores lost their first seven league games, but only their loss at Tennessee was a true blowout. They finally posted a win against Alabama. This is a young team that brought in one of the nation’s top recruiting classes along with their new coach. That young group began to figure some things out towards the end of the year and closed with three wins in their final five games. Erin Whalen is one of those freshmen and took home the season’s final SEC Freshman of the Week honor. Scoring has been a team effort: the Commodores have just one player, Rachel Bell, scoring at least 10 PPG, but nine players average at least 5 PPG. Senior forward Marqu’es Webb continues to be a physical presence inside, but this is a team that lives and dies with the three-pointer. Only Missouri has made more, and the Commodores hit an impressive 39.1% of their outside shots. Their inexperience shows up in their ballhandling: only Florida turns the ball over more.

14) Arkansas (2-14, 13-16) (LY-10): Star forward Jessica Jackson can only carry them so far. The Razorbacks made it through nonconference play with an 11-2 record, but those two losses were to Oral Roberts and Missouri State. Reality soon set in during the SEC schedule, and they dropped their first four league games. Arkansas showed signs of life with consecutive wins in mid-January, but they’ve lost ten straight to end the season. There have been a few close calls – six of the losses on their current losing streak were by seven points or fewer – but the breakthrough never came. Jackson’s had yet another impressive campaign in her senior season and scores about 15 PPG. She leads the team in rebounds, three-pointers made and attempted, and foul shots made and attempted. Malica Monk, Keiryn Swenson, and Jailyn Mason provide scoring from the guard position.


Post 2017 signing class one for the ages

Thursday February 2, 2017

Certain recruiting classes are touchstones for those who follow Georgia recruiting. 1982. 1998. 2011. It will be a while before we can place the 2017 class in the proper context (hello, 2013), but at first glance Kirby Smart’s first full class was a blockbuster. Rivals considers the class the nation’s third-best, and other recruiting services are in the same neighborhood.

The class is anchored by one of Georgia’s best offensive line hauls in program history. Massive 5* offensive tackle Isaiah Wilson and guard Netori Johnson are the headliners, but it’s a deep group of six with several future starters. Wilson and JUCO signee D’Marcus Hayes have the opportunity to help out immediately at either tackle position.

You don’t get a top-five class without quality across the board. The offensive line stands out, but Georgia landed blue chip players at quarterback (Jake Fromm), tailback (D’Andre Swift), receiver (Jeremiah Holloman, Trey Blount, and Mark Webb), defensive end (Robert Beal and Malik Herring), linebacker (Nate McBride and Jaden Hunter), and defensive back (Richard LeCounte and Deangelo Gibbs). Not everyone from the class will pan out – such is the nature of recruiting – but there aren’t many reaches in the group.

Could the class have been even better? Sure. Jamyest Williams and Aubrey Solomon heading elsewhere rates as a disappointment mainly for wishful thinkers. It would have been nice to land either – or both – but Georgia shouldn’t have been considered the favorite for a player committed to another school or one for whom Georgia didn’t rate an in-home visit. If there was one surprise that went against Georgia, it was Markaviest Bryant heading to Auburn. Georgia was a near-lock for Bryant for much of the process and still an overwhelming favorite until just recently. Some even expected Bryant to go public with a commitment to Georgia around the time McBride did, but LSU and eventually Auburn were able to muddy the waters and capture his attention.

In some years a decision by a player of Bryant’s caliber would put a serious dent in the overall quality of the class. This year, while a mild disappointment, Bryant’s decision hardly moved the needle to the extent that, say, Derrick Brown did a year ago. That speaks to the magnitude of the rest of the group, but the disappointment is also mitigated by the return of Bellamy and Carter. The team still needs to stockpile outside linebackers in future classes, but 2017 will be fine with those two veterans leading the position.

The departure of Rico McGraw and Juwuan Briscoe made the depth situation at defensive back a little more dire, so it’s no surprise that the team also loaded up there. Gibbs and LeCounte jump off the highlight reel, but William Poole III, Latavious Brini, and Ameer Speed will provide nice depth over the next four years. Georgia should have an experienced group starting at defensive back, but with McGraw and Briscoe gone several newcomers could see the field in reserve roles.

One surprising name from Signing Day was David Marvin. Though he won’t show up on the list of signees, Marvin is a graduate transfer from Wofford who expects to compete for placekicking duties. Georgia has had graduate transfers step into starting roles since 2015, and Marvin might be the player who kicks off the 2017 season.

A stellar signing class can form the core of some memorable teams. Mark Richt’s initial success in 2001 and 2002 wouldn’t have been possible without the buy-in, leadership, and ability of the standout 1998 class. Georgia has seen exceptional classes before, but Smart can distinguish himself by making the quality of the 2017 class the rule rather than the exception. We’ve seen what a recruiting lapse of a couple of years can do to a program (and its coach). Smart was brought in to improve on a fairly high level of success. It’s going to take more recruiting classes like this one to get there. Smart, at least in his first full recruiting cycle, has proven his ability to deliver such a class.


Post What’s a preferred walk-on?

Wednesday February 1, 2017

Since most of Georgia’s 2017 signing class is either already committed or waiting until Signing Day to announce, it’s been a fairly quiet couple of weeks. There have been some important visitors each of the past two weekends, but the biggest splash has come from a 2019 commitment.

With the nice-to-have problem of finding enough spots in a stellar recruiting class, this is the time of year when we start to hear all of those “roster management” terms that we use as shorthand to talk about how teams allocate their 85 scholarships. At Georgia, the past week has brought a flurry of “preferred walk-ons.” What makes certain players preferred walk-ons?

The important thing: “preferred walk-on” (PWO) is meaningless as far as the NCAA is concerned. They’re simply non-scholarship players. It’s a term without any kind of formal or standard definition. It’s up to each school how they distinguish one walk-on from another – if at all. Each school runs its own walk-on program differently guided only by the limits of 85 scholarship players and 105 total players on the roster. Though most coaches are up-front about the path to a scholarship, some choose to avoid creating a distinction among their walk-ons. Depending on the program, being a PWO might mean:

  • They are recruited and invited by the staff. The PWO is recruited like any scholarship player but with the understanding that he will not be on scholarship. Coaches may promise the opportunity to earn a scholarship down the road if one becomes available.
  • They are all but guaranteed to make the 105-man roster. Not every walk-on who comes out for the team will last, but preferred walk-ons don’t have to go through a cattle-call tryout. This seems to be the minimum consensus definition of a PWO.
  • They are involved in all team activities – meetings, community service, Fan Day, etc.
  • They have access to team perks. This includes gear, access to the weight room and training facilities, and academic support. They also have access to team meals and the dining hall but must pay for meals.
  • They may travel to the bowl game. Walk-ons (and even some scholarship players) don’t travel with the team to road games. The rules are looser for bowls, and walk-ons receive the same travel stipend, per-diem distributions, and bowl swag as the scholarship players.

Kirby Smart identified Georgia’s walk-on program for improvement back in the spring. True to his word, Smart has been very active lately adding walk-ons to the 2017 class. Vince Dooley’s grandson is among them. There will even be another Frank Sinkwich on the team. The Dawgs added another pair of walk-ons on Sunday, and they continue to roll in on the eve of Signing Day.

We’ve seen PWOs at nearly every position at Georgia. This year alone the Dawgs have used PWOs to add to their depth at linebacker, punter, fullback, quarterback, and receiver. They even hosted an offensive lineman currently committed to Harvard as a possible walk-on addition. This year, thanks in some part to the visibility of the Blankenship story, the most high-profile PWO commitment to date might be that of Greater Atlanta Christian kicker Brooks Buce. Georgia had interest in several kickers who were weighing walk-on offers against scholarship offers at smaller programs, and Buce signed on. He’ll compete with Blankenship and the rest of the kickers on the roster, but his best chance to make an early impact is as a kickoff specialist.


Post A roof over their heads

Monday January 23, 2017

When you see this past weekend called “Georgia’s biggest remaining official visit weekend” and hear about the awful weather going on across the state, it’s a good time to let Georgia’s new IPF have its first big moment.

The IPF won’t be officially dedicated until mid-February, but it’s already getting plenty of use. There were walk-throughs during bowl practices, and offseason workouts are going on there almost daily. Now it’s also available to host some of the most important prospects remaining on Georgia’s board.

Yes, the prospects had a lot of stops across campus and across Athens that put them out into weather that wasn’t nearly as nice as last weekend’s. It’s still nice to bring them back by the showpiece facility and hand out in the program’s new home.

PS…Georgia’s football program isn’t the only team using the IPF to get better during their offseason.


Post A Georgia fan watches the championship game

Tuesday January 10, 2017

I thought the game itself came down to two things: first was Bama failing to capitalize on Clemson turnovers. Alabama’s ability to convert turnovers into scores (often without the offense taking the field!) became the stuff of legends this year. They created two turnovers in this game – both on Clemson’s end of the field. But not only did Clemson prevent those non-offense touchdowns that had become Alabama’s calling card; they also kept Alabama’s offense out of the endzone after those turnovers. The Tide had to settle for a net of three points off those two turnovers, and that wasn’t nearly enough of a knockout blow.

The last Clemson turnover came early in the third quarter, and Alabama led 17-7. From there the story was Clemson’s offense wearing down the Alabama defense. With Bo Scarbrough injured, the Tide found it difficult to sustain drives, and the Alabama defense was called on again and again until it broke down to the tune of 21 fourth quarter points for the Tigers. Clemson ended up running 99 plays due in large part to an effective defense of their own and an Alabama offense that couldn’t put together any kind of a sustained drive until they fell behind.

Georgia fans naturally thought of the end of the 2012 SEC Championship. This time the Tide didn’t stop the last-minute drive. The difference of course is that the 2012 Dawgs had to have a touchdown while this Clemson team would have survived with a chip shot field goal if it came to that. I think that difference changes playcalling quite a bit, and of course the issue of the running clock in 2012 also factors in.

I supported the Tide in this game. It wasn’t out of any SEC loyalty, a concept I’ll never understand fully. I saw a Bama win as the best outcome for Georgia. We’ve more or less become numb to Alabama titles, and I didn’t want Clemson adding a national title to their recruiting pitch. The Dawgs have enough of a challenge recruiting against their SEC rivals, but two of the last four national champs are ACC schools from neighboring states. That doesn’t make Kirby Smart’s job any easier.

Clemson won though, and three of the last four national champions border Georgia to the south, west, and now the northeast. It’s not news that the recruiting competition in this part of the country is cutthroat, and Clemson’s win will only make it moreso. Seeing yet another neighbor hoist the trophy, especially one with whom Georgia has such deep history, only increases the desperation of Georgia fans to see their program win a title. Clemson had waited since 1981, but Bulldog fans can do them one better.

Dabo’s path to the top hasn’t been linear and certainly hasn’t been conventional. His elevation from interim coach in 2008 wasn’t seen as a home run, and his program was nearly short-circuited after a disappointing 2010. Swinney made some changes and brought in outstanding coordinators – first Chad Morris to overhaul the offense and then Brent Venables to build the defense. The turning point was Clemson’s comeback upset of LSU in the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl. The Tigers have lost only seven games in the four seasons since. More, they’ve survived and even improved after the departure of Morris and a wave of talent that salvaged Swinney’s career.

Georgia’s 2013 and 2014 games against Clemson were battles of fairly evenly-matched teams. Clemson won a tight game in 2013 as Tajh Boyd bested Aaron Murray in a contest of senior quarterbacks. Georgia’s dominant running game was the story in 2014 as Gurley and Chubb took over and blew open a close game. A secondary story of that 2014 was how both teams managed to replace Murray and Boyd. Georgia was positioned better in the short term with Hutson Mason, but it took one throw to realize that Clemson’s long term answer was a very special true freshman.

I was surprised but certainly also glad that Clemson didn’t stick with Watson in that game. We had our own experience breaking in a true freshman quarterback this season, and I’m sure Swinney had his own developmental plan for Watson in mind. It didn’t take long for Watson to win the starting job, and he came back from a knee injury to lead his team to consecutive national title games. He’s been an outstanding player and has to be in the discussion of the best players who never won the Heisman.

No one imagined after that 2014 game in Sanford Stadium that Georgia had run all over a team that would play for a national title the next year and win it just one one year later. I also doubt many expected the two programs to head in such different trajectories.

As Kirby Smart rebuilds the Georgia program, he knows that the team’s foundation is as important as the superstars. That realization is evident in the current recruiting class, especially on the offensive line. It’s true that Georgia also must keep top talent like Watson in state, but Georgia has had exceptional individuals like Stafford, Green, and Gurley with no titles to show for it. It’s the supporting cast that needs the most work, and it isn’t hard to imagine how much better even a true freshman like Eason would look having a target like Williams or a left tackle like Hyatt.

What we saw last night was an outstanding player in Watson that could push a program over the top as well as a program in a position to take full advantage when that player came along. Swinney did well to land a transformational player like Watson, but he’s a championship coach because the rest of the ingredients were in place and came together. Even Watson couldn’t do it alone, and it took a fleet of receivers like Williams, Renfrow, and Leggett making tough catches along with a line that largely held their own against Alabama’s standard pass rush to produce those magical fourth quarter drives.


Post Even the freaking bowl game is at noon

Sunday December 4, 2016

Georgia will face TCU in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis at noon on Friday, December 30. ESPN will televise the game. This matchup had been the consensus among most bowl projections since last weekend, and none of Saturday’s results did anything to change the placement of SEC teams.

Georgia is undefeated in three previous meetings with TCU. The most recent game occurred in Athens in 1998, and Georgia came away with a 38-10 victory.

TCU finished the regular season 6-6 overall and 4-5 in Big 12 conference play. Their wins include impressive blowouts against Baylor (66-22) and Texas (31-9), but they have no wins over ranked opponents. They have a couple of near-misses earlier in the season: Arkansas outlasted them 41-38 in 2OT, and Oklahoma outgunned them 52-46 on Oct. 1. They started the season ranked #13 and were still ranked #21 for that Oklahoma game, but they finished the season 3-4.

The Horned Frogs finished the 2015 season ranked #7 after an improbable comeback win over Oregon in the bowl game. They lost a large group of contributors from that team including QB Trevone Boykin and All-American WR Josh Doctson. Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill leads the TCU offense, but he was injured against Texas. He came off the bench in the season finale against Kansas State but couldn’t kickstart a lackluster offense. You’d expect Hill to be a little healthier in time for the bowl. Hill and his replacement Foster Sawyer have gone back and forth since preseason, and TCU hasn’t been afraid to pull Hill when he’s struggled.

TCU’s offense has put up some big scores this season, but consistency has been an issue. It sounds as if they’ve had some familiar problems at receiver and along the offensive line. A good barometer for Georgia’s success in the bowl game will be the Dawgs’ ability to run: TCU defended the run well in big wins over Baylor and Texas but gave up at least 330 yards on the ground in losses to Oklahoma State and Kansas State.


Post Tech’s chunky offense

Wednesday November 23, 2016

“They are looking for chunk plays. You want to make them drive it through. They do; they are very methodical. They manage their down and distances really well, and they stay ahead of chains, it makes them tough to stop. So every time you try to give them a negative play or do something to put them behind the chains, you put yourself at risk. They know it’s a numbers game…The key is being sound, tackling and not giving up big plays, and that’s what our goal is, to do that.”

Kirby Smart explained some fundamental concepts of the option offense on Monday, and it’s no secret that the offense can generate a big gain on the ground on just about any play if just one defensive assignment is missed. We’ve all seen the pound-pound-pound-pound-BAM of several short dive plays followed by a devastating pitch for 60 yards when the defense cheats inside against the dive.

Last week against Virginia, Tech had 29 rushing attempts that went for a total of 72 yards. But they had two additional runs that went for touchdowns of 60 and 67 yards. Those are exactly the kind of “chunk plays” that Smart is talking about stopping.

But it’s not just big plays on the ground that the Georgia defense must watch for. Tech quarterback Justin Thomas has been especially effective hitting big pass plays. If teams start to sell out to stop the run, defense will leave receivers wide open. Tech has had at least one completion of 50 yards of more in four of their last five games, and five Tech players have receptions of at least 36 yards this season. The one game without a long pass play was against Virginia Tech – a game Thomas missed due to injury. It’s not just the wide receivers who can make big plays in the passing game. Running backs releasing from the backfield have had some of the biggest receptions. Tailback Clinton Lynch has had receptions of 45 yards or more in five of Tech’s eleven games. Lynch has six of Tech’s nine receiving touchdowns, and Georgia’s secondary must pay attention when he’s in the game.

Tech thrives on these big plays from both the running and passing games. They’re 20th in the nation in yards per play thanks to the ability to hit these explosive plays. They’re at 6.3 YPP for the season and 6.8 over their past three games. (Georgia, by contrast, averages 5.1 YPP this season.) As Smart said, Tech is content to take four or five yards per carry on the dive if it’s there, but limiting these explosive “chunk” plays is what could keep the score in a manageable range for Georgia.


Post Georgia 35 – UL-L 7: The team with McKenzie and Chubb won

Wednesday November 23, 2016

I spent most of Saturday’s game entertaining a four-year-old at his first Georgia game, and that kind of sums up the crowd that ranged from disinterested to, well, absent. It’s unfair to the players who are expected to perform at a certain level regardless of the opponent or juice from the stands, but it was a welcome change to be a little bored at a home game. The performances of McKenzie, Chubb, and the secondary notwithstanding, you’re not going to hear this game celebrated for years to come. On the other hand, it won’t be a game like Nicholls or Vandy that will provoke nausea just by mentioning the opponent’s name.

I was expecting a close game – or at least low-scoring – game because of the identity this team has developed. That’s not a criticism; it’s just what’s come to be over the first ten games of the season:

  • Georgia doesn’t push tempo. They’re content to chew clock. That lends itself to fewer possessions and plays.
  • They struggle to convert scoring opportunities. The line can’t generate much of a push for power running, and the receivers aren’t built for the fade/jump balls we often see teams use close to the goal line.
  • Georgia isn’t an explosive offense. They’re in the bottom third nationally at 5.1 yards per play. Georgia must often drive to get into scoring range, and it’s been tough for this team to sustain and finish drives.

All of that held true to form in the UL-L game with one big exception: Georgia scored three of their five touchdowns on explosive plays. The Dawgs averaged a solid 6.8 yards per play thanks to long scoring plays by McKenzie and Chubb. Otherwise things looked very much the same. Georgia got just seven points off of four UL-L first half turnovers. (To be fair, one of those turnovers came in the final minute of the half.) They had just one scoring drive longer than five plays: a nice 11-play, 93-yard series that really put things out of reach early in the third quarter. Georgia’s other long drives that led to scoring opportunities – an 11-play drive in the first half and an 8-play drive in the second half – ended on turnovers.

Credit McKenzie and special teams for putting Georgia in a good position very quickly. Reggie Davis had perhaps the best kickoff return of the season to open the game, and McKenzie cashed it in with fewer than 30 seconds off the clock. McKenzie then made his own special teams highlight with nice blocking once McKenzie shook free of the initial coverage. Playing with a two-touchdown lead isn’t a luxury Georgia has enjoyed often this year.

McKenzie’s touchdown run was a nice counter to a play that UL-L had surely seen a billion times on tape – the toss to Chubb. While the action went with Chubb and the toss, McKenzie went back against the action, got a block from Payne (fortunately not called for holding on the play), and had nothing but space in front of him.

That early lead was tested after Eason’s interception. Chubb and Lamont Gaillard hustled downfield to make sure a bad play didn’t turn into the kind of disastrous turnovers we saw against Nicholls. Still, UL-L had good field position, and it took some good defense and timely penalties to put UL-L in a position to have to go for it on 4th and long. The shutout was intact, at least for the moment, and Georgia soon added a third touchdown for some breathing room.

The defense did well with their discipline on the gadget plays UL-L showed. An early reverse was snuffed out by Aaron Davis with Roquan Smith in fast pursuit. Deandre Baker stayed with his man and had textbook coverage on a reverse flea-flicker not long after UL-L’s interception return.

Nice pick by the umpire on Nauta’s touchdown.

Chubb’s touchdown reception was one of the most encouraging plays of the game. Eason was staring down the slot receiver running a corner route, but it was covered. He checked down to the open Chubb, and Nick was off to the races. This outlet to the tailback has been there a lot this season (most notably on the pick six against Ole Miss), and it’s exciting to see Eason start to look at his options. It helped that he had time – pass protection was generally solid on Saturday.

UL-L’s garbage times scores only matter to Vegas and the coaches trying to develop defensive depth. What was more concerning was UL-L’s ability to get outside on running plays. Georgia didn’t hold the edge very well, and even solid tacklers like Parrish were ineffective once the runs went wide. Those plays become big gains against the option pitch. The defense also struggled to get off the field. A week after a superlative performance against Auburn, the defense allowed UL-L to convert third downs at better than 50%. Three-and-outs were rare: UL-L had only two drives without a first down. As a result, the visitors limited Georgia to only five second half possessions. Fortunately the Dawgs scored on two of those possessions to put the game away at 35-7.


Post Georgia 13 – Auburn 7: Just Enough

Wednesday November 16, 2016

Man, we needed that.

It hasn’t been an especially cheery time at Sanford Stadium lately, and it had been about a year since the last SEC home win. Georgia was in danger of going winless against SEC competition at home, and the Dawgs faced long odds to avoid a losing conference record in Kirby Smart’s first season.

For one night we got Sanford Stadium at its finest. The crowd was engaged from the awesome pregame flyover. Georgia connected on two early deep passes to give us hope that the Dawgs could move the ball. The halftime deficit was concerning, but Auburn wasn’t able to build the kind of lead that would take the crowd out of it. After Georgia equalized on Mo Smith’s pick six, the crowd was locked in.

Defense

The story of the game of course was Georgia’s defense. It cooled off Auburn’s red-hot offense by first limiting big plays in the running game and then choking off any kind of success when it became clear that the Tigers struggled to move the ball through the air. You hadn’t seen a half of defense like that since the 2011 SEC Championship game where Georgia held LSU without a first down in the first half. This time, though, the Dawgs were able to put their dominant second half together with a reasonably good first half and avoided the turnovers and special teams scores that led to a loss in that 2011 game.

Did Auburn have much to do with Georgia’s success? Sure, and that’s probably the case in any half that turns out like the second half did. Sean White was horribly inaccurate despite entering the game as one of the top 10 quarterbacks in the nation in efficieny. His health has been the subject of rumors before and since the game, but he was the quarterback Auburn chose to stick with. There were also a couple of drops, though no Georgia fan will have much sympathy there. Georgia’s pressure did its fair share to disrupt, hurry, and alter several of those incompletions.

I guess we can also thank Auburn’s coaches for insisting that 3rd-and-short was a passing down. On Auburn’s lone scoring drive, they faced 3rd-and-3 and 3rd-and-1. They ran both times and converted both en route to the touchdown. In the second half, Auburn faced 3rd (or 4th)-and-2 five times and chose to pass each time. The results were a sack and four incompletions. My analysis involves gift horses and mouths.

If Georgia tweaked one thing on defense after giving up 20+ points in each of the past two games, it was a more aggressive use of interior blitzes. Auburn’s struggling pass offense meant that Georgia could risk bringing the occasional blitz, and pressure from Roquan Smith and Reggie Carter in particular led to a pair of big third down stops.

The Smith interception was without question the turning point, but another third down stop in the first half kept Georgia in a position to win the game. Early in the second quarter Auburn had put together another promising drive immediately after their lone scoring drive. The Tigers faced a 3rd and 6 at Georgia’s 38, and a conversion would have at least placed Auburn in Daniel Carlson’s range. I think the outlook of the game changes if Auburn is able to score on consecutive possessions and open up a two-score lead. Mel Tucker called a Roquan Smith blitz up the middle, and a retreating White dumped the ball off in the backfield to Kerryon Johnson. Davin Bellamy was waiting and made a shoestring tackle for a 13-yard loss around midfield. Auburn punted. The Tigers managed just one more first down later in the quarter and never entered Georgia territory again.

Offense

It’s odd to praise an offense that, for the first time this season, didn’t score a touchdown. Had Auburn’s offense been more productive, we’d be dwelling on the invisible force that causes Georgia drives to stall around the opponent’s 30-yard line. But Auburn’s offense wasn’t more productive, and the Bulldog offense did just enough to make its own mark on the game.

The offense’s biggest contribution was in field position and time of possession. The best defense against an offense like Auburn’s is to keep it on the sideline. As much as we made about Auburn’s lack of second half first downs, Georgia posted only two three-and-outs in the game. No, it didn’t lead to many points, but being able to move the chains contributed to the team win:

  1. The offense got the Bulldogs out of the few instances when they were pinned deep on their own end.
  2. It allowed the Georgia defense to rest up and maintain a consistently high level of play in the second half.
  3. It kept field position in Georgia’s favor even when a punt or two was shanked. Auburn’s best starting field position was its own 32 yard line. Nine of their drives started with touchbacks or inside their own 25.
  4. It wore down Auburn’s defense to the point that Georgia was able to use up valuable clock on two second half drives that lasted at least 6:45 each. The Tigers had only three possessions after the 5:29 mark of the third quarter.

Georgia’s ability to spread the ball around stood out. Chubb and Michel got their share of touches of course. Entering the game you’d never have expected Georgia to gain more rushing yards than Auburn and for Chubb to be the only back over 100 yards. The offense did well to involve speedy receivers like McKenzie, Godwin, and Ridley – the end-around to Ridley was an effective play that got the ball outside into space. The Dawgs still found opportunities to connect with Nauta on a couple of nice shallow crosses.

Though we can quibble with individual play calls, the overall gameplan was solid. Georgia moved the ball, got the right people involved, and did just enough to capitalize on the amazing work of the defense. Credit Auburn and their outstanding defensive front for being good enough to disrupt several plays that looked as if they could go for big yardage. Linebacker Deshaun Davis seemed to be everywhere and had the awareness to stay with Eason on Georgia’s attempted trick play. But even a defense that’s played as well as Auburn’s can’t spend that much time on the field without it affecting them, and it was enjoyable to watch Georgia run sweep after sweep against a tired defense to salt away the fourth quarter.

The turning point that wasn’t

There was an Auburn punt with nine minutes left in the game that was about 30 seconds of pure horror. First Auburn lined up with 10 men on the punt team. They snuck an additional gunner in along the north sideline, and Georgia didn’t respond to cover up the additional player. The crowd began to stir as they saw an uncovered eligible receiver who could have walked for first down yardage (and then some.) Auburn fortunately executed a routine punt – perhaps they also didn’t recognize the opportunity.

Just as we were about over that little adventure, Georgia dodged another bullet fielding the punt. McKenzie was unable to field the ball cleanly after contact with an Auburn player, and Auburn would have been set up in a position to at least tie the game if their recovery stood. Counting on Saturday’s officials to make a call was a crapshoot, but they managed to flag the catch interference and save Georgia from another special teams disaster. The Dawgs responded with a 14-play drive that took nearly seven minutes off the clock that brought us to the closing stages of the game.

The statute of limitations is up, right?

I wondered about this at the game and confirmed it on the re-watch, but it sure looked as if Eason was down with one second left on the clock. I’m probably not the only one who spent the last few minutes of the game trying to figure out how Auburn would one-up Tennessee’s finish, and the possibility of a turnover and one final play for Auburn was terrifying. I’m just surprised it wasn’t even reviewed (whether initiated by the booth or the league office we got to know in Lexington.) It took a while before I could exhale and enjoy the win.

Onward

So now with two close SEC wins under their belts, you’d hope the Dawgs could build on those and finish the season on a roll like 2007 or 2012. Does this team have such a roll in them? Each win has been a close one, and the team hasn’t shown the firepower yet to put up a big score. They’ll also be challenged to get up for a couple of noon games after a big national spotlight for Auburn, and this weekend in particular will be a test of Smart’s ability to get the team focused and just as motivated as they were for Auburn. It didn’t take long for people to start mentioning the Nicholls (let alone the Vandy) game as examples of what can happen when the team isn’t sharp. We’ll see this weekend what’s come of those close games and whether Georgia can finally put a team away.


Post Defense fun fact

Friday November 11, 2016

Courtesy of Marc Weiszer:

Better news: no one on that list is a senior.


Post Catalina: “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Friday November 11, 2016

I think this is one of the first conversations with Georgia’s left tackle I’ve seen since the season started. Tyler Catalina transferred in from Rhode Island and moved right into the starting left tackle position to replace a 5* multi-year starter and NFL draft pick. It hasn’t been a smooth season, but Catalina wouldn’t trade the experience. If anything, he’d like another year to develop after adjusting to the speed of the college game at its highest level. He and his fellow linemen will face perhaps their toughest assignment of the season this weekend against Auburn’s outstanding defensive line.

I’ll say this: I’m glad Catalina is here. The circumstances that led to him starting at left tackle aren’t his fault, and he takes the heat for the consequences of Georgia having no serviceable tackles ready to go after 2015. Unless you have reason to disagree with Sam Pittman’s evaluation of his depth chart, Georgia’s line is better off (however marginal that might be) with Catalina than it would have been without him. It’s fine to be frustrated with the player when mistakes are made that have nothing to do with ability, and Catalina has certainly had his share. But as tempting as it is, I can’t apply a standard to the position that ignores why Catalina is on the field to begin with.

I came to feel the same way about Lambert last season. All he did was come in and set personal career bests in just about every area, but he was criticized for not being Aaron Murray (or even Hutson Mason.) Georgia’s quarterback recruiting and the stunted development of Ramsey wasn’t Lambert’s fault. Just as an FCS transfer stepping into the starting left tackle position tells you all you need to know about Georgia’s recruiting and development of tackles since Theus signed, the state of Georgia’s quarterback position in 2015 was exposed when Lambert earned and then maintained the starting job.


Post 2016-2017 Lady Dogs preview

Friday November 11, 2016

The 2015-2016 Lady Dogs season ended with a first-round NCAA Tournament exit after a 21-10 season and a 6th-place finish in the competitive SEC.

First-year coach Joni Taylor took over the program under favorable conditions. The Georgia program was slumping, but it was by no means starting from scratch. Taylor inherited a veteran-heavy team that included four returning senior starters. She was able to guide the team to a strong start and held on as two starters were lost for the year to injuries. Georgia returned to the NCAA Tournament and avoided the ignominy of becoming part of the first Georgia teams to miss consecutive postseasons in over 30 years.

With those four seniors, Taylor was essentially presiding over the end of the Andy Landers era. She made some adjustments and left no question that it was her team and program now, but there was also a strong core that had bonded for three seasons under Landers (with Taylor doing her part as an assistant.) That core is gone now, and there are only a couple of players remaining on the roster for whom Landers was the head coach longer than Taylor has been.

2016 will mark new beginnings for Taylor in several areas. On the court, it will be the first team that largely bears her imprint. She paid her dues as a rookie coach and can begin to take the program in the direction of her vision. On a personal level, Taylor and her husband welcomed their first child just eight days before the start of the season. As she spent last season learning the ropes of being a head coach, she’ll now be a rookie mom and will follow the lead of many professionals who must learn parenthood on the fly while finding the work/family balance that suits them. There is no set return date, and Taylor will likely ease back into the role. Associate Head Coach Karen Lange will be the acting head coach, and a plan for handling Taylor’s absence and gradual return to the program has been worked on for months.

Departures

In addition to the four graduated seniors (Barbee, Griffin, Hempe, and Butler), two other players are no longer with the team. Three-point specialist Amber Skidgel is now at North Georgia. Walk-on guard Hannahkohl Almire has also moved on.

The Roster

The roster features 12 players, and that’s already under the NCAA limit of 15 scholarship players. Freshman post Kortney Eisenman will never play for the team after a medical disqualification. Eisenman was a national top 20 post player and was slotted to be a likely replacement for Merritt Hempe. Two other players, 6’5″ center Bianca Blanaru and guard Taja Cole, will sit out this season as a condition of their transfers.

So that leaves Taylor with eight scholarship players and a walk-on available for 2016-2017, and only six of those are returning players.

There are three seniors on this year’s squad. But unlike last year’s team whose seniors were all multi-year starters, this senior group features a number of role players who will be asked to step into a much larger leadership role. Center Halle Washington became an occasional starter last season after Engram and Barbee were lost to injury. She’s an athletic and capable post player who has improved each season, but foul discipline has been a persistent issue. With Eisenman unavailable, Georgia needs every minute they can get out of Washington. Pachis Roberts is in her third season as a wing after transferring from Syracuse. She has the ability to play on the perimeter but also pulled down over four rebounds per game. Shanea Armbrister was a JUCO transfer who saw limited time in relief of Georgia’s starting guards. Armbrister was brought in as a perimeter threat and will be looked to for offense this year.

Georgia’s underclassmen might be more familiar to fans. Junior forward Mackenzie Engram had an impressive freshman campaign, but her sophomore season was cut short by an upper respiratory illness. Haley Clark spent the past two seasons learning the point guard position behind Marjorie Butler, and now it’s her turn to run the Georgia offense. Georgia’s lone sophomore emerged as one of the brightest new starts in the SEC last season. Forward Caliya Robinson was a SEC All-Freshman Team selection who averaged nearly 15 points per game over Georgia’s last four games. Robinson averaged 8.0 points and was the team’s third-leading rebounder despite only starting one game as a freshman. Look for her to be a focal point of Georgia’s post offense and a tough interior defender on the other end.

Georgia signed two newcomers in addition to Eisenman. Stephanie Paul was the #32-ranked prospect in the country according to Prospects Nation and should earn immediate playing time behind Georgia’s frontcourt starters. Simone Costa is a junior college transfer guard with good 5’10” size who will be asked to back up Armbrister and Clark. The team recently added a walk-on guard, Ari Henderson.

Strengths/Weaknesses

The strengths and weaknesses are fairly apparent. Washington, Engram, and Robinson form a fairly good starting frontcourt, and Georgia’s offense should look to go inside-out. The backcourt is a concern. Georgia’s 173 three-pointers were 6th-best in the SEC last season, but players no longer with the team accounted for 127 of those. Armbrister (2.2 PPG) and Clark (1.4 PPG) haven’t been big scorers. It’s possible that Roberts (7 PPG) could start as the 2-guard. As a wing she’s capable from outside and can cause mismatches for smaller guards, but she’ll also be asked to defend quicker guards on the other end. Georgia can move Roberts to small forward if substitution patterns require, and Paul will be also be part of the frontcourt rotation. Costa will be an option at either guard spot. If Armbrister doesn’t start, she’ll be quick to come in off the bench especially if Roberts has to rotate inside.

The team also looks to be stronger inside on defense. Washington and Robinson can block shots, though Washington must avoid fouls. Robinson is also a solid rebounder, but Georgia will sorely miss Barbee’s work on the glass. There’s not a ton of size available especially if Washington is on the bench. Paul should bring a good shot of toughness to the frontcourt. We just haven’t seen enough of the guards to know if they can play consistent defense for the kinds of minutes they’ll see.

Schedule

Visits from BYU and Virginia highlight the home nonconference schedule, and they’ll travel to face Cincinnati, Georgia Tech, and Oklahoma State. There’s a Thanksgiving tournament in the Bahama where the Lady Dogs will play Minnesota and either South Florida or North Carolina. None of Georgia’s nonconference opponents is currently ranked though several received votes.

The SEC slate is another story. Five of Georgia’s first seven SEC opponents earned a preseason ranking, and the Lady Dogs will face national title contender South Carolina twice during that stretch. The rotating SEC schedule means that Georgia will face South Carolina, Kentucky, and Florida twice. Home fans will get to see several quality teams: Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida, Alabama, and LSU all visit Athens.

Outlook

Given the departures, Georgia either needed a loaded group of returning players or a stellar recruiting class to not miss a beat. They don’t have either. There is some talent on the roster and a couple of promising newcomers, but the depth of a well-rounded roster isn’t there. The SEC coaches pick Georgia to finish 12th out of 14 teams, and the Lady Dogs don’t place anyone on the preseason All-SEC teams. Georgia must finish at least 10th to avoid playing in the Wednesday play-in games at the SEC Tournament, and a finish in the bottom half of the league would likely mean that Georgia misses the postseason for the second time in three years.

The future is bright: Blanaru and Cole will make instant contributions after sitting out. Georgia also has four top-100 prospects already committed to a 2017 class that’s currently rated #5 in the nation. Taylor knows that the talent level has to be raised, and we’re seeing indications that Georgia won’t be down for long. In the meantime, though, it looks like a transitional year and one in which Georgia will be considered more of a spoiler than a contender.


Post Georgia 27 – Kentucky 24: “Nobody panicked.”

Wednesday November 9, 2016

I don’t think this game was a corner-turn in the sense that we’ll look back and track how different things were after the Kentucky game. It was very much in character with the rest of the season: talented but flawed defense, inconsistent but occasionally brilliant QB play, a mixed bag on special teams, and an offense that went as its running game went.

What was also in character was the calmness and lack of panic with which Georgia mounted another second half comeback and a last-minute scoring drive. We’ve seen it in four games now, and Jacob Eason is developing a good reputation for his poise at the end of close games. Eason had gone through a rough 6-of-14 stretch after a decent start, but he finished the game 7-of-9 on Georgia’s fourth quarter scoring drives.

We’ve already seen the sneers about Georgia getting excited over a win against Kentucky. Had the Wildcats won, they’d have headed into their final SEC game with a puncher’s chance of winning the division. This game was billed as a meeting of two teams on opposite vectors. The Dawgs had enjoyed a win just once in the last six weeks, and they had to go on the road to face a hot team that was motivated by a realistic chance at a title. No, it wasn’t a program-changing win over a ranked rival (hopefully we can write about one of those next week.) Instead, it was a gut check after some very disappointing losses. We can talk later about how the goals for the season have changed in a bad way, but it looks at the very least as if Georgia’s bowl streak will live on.

On a related note, if you can’t smile and enjoy the sudden viral stardom of Rodrigo Blankenship, you’re taking this all too seriously. Blankenship has nailed eight field goals in the past three games, handled the gamewinner on Saturday with ease, and has all the quirkiness you’d hope for from a kicker. The win was nice, but the spontaneous over-the-top embrace of Blankenship made the win fun, and it’s a rare moment of levity in a season without many of them. Relish it.

Defense

Kirby Smart told the sideline reporter at halftime that the game would be decided by turnovers and tackling. It’s amazing then that Georgia won the game: they turned the ball over three times and had some costly missed tackles right up until Kentucky’s final goal-to-go sequence. It’s not worth singling out individuals; few defenders really distinguished themselves with their tackling. Georgia’s run defense got one of its strongest tests of the season, and it struggled at times with Kentucky’s wildcat look. The strength of the defense was the interior line – Julian Rochester ended up leading the team in tackles in relief of an injured Trenton Thompson, and Georgia’s freshmen up front were a bright spot.

The Dawgs limited a weak Kentucky passing attack to just 103 yards and 5 yards per attempt through the air. Georgia did dodge a bullet on Deandre Baker’s interception, but they generally did well once Kentucky was forced into standard passing situations. Florida’s third down conversions were a big part of their success last week (converting 9 of 18 against Georgia.) The Dawgs did much better this week limiting Kentucky to one third down conversion all game – until the final drive. The Wildcats converted twice on their long drive to tie the game.

Offense

The move of Jim Chaney to the box isn’t very interesting to me for two reasons: first, reporters have no way of interviewing him to get his perspective. Second, I still haven’t seen any adjustment, benefit, or mistake that can be attributed to the move. Yes, the offense was more balanced and productive. It also struggled to turn scoring opportunities into touchdowns. Both the good and bad were elements of the offense we’d seen all season. If they want to use the move to the box as a talisman going forward, great.

Georgia’s running game was a big part of the story all week. No one, least of all Chubb or Michel, was satisfied with the performance at Florida. We knew Georgia would redouble their efforts on the ground in Lexington, and the Wildcats had to expect it too. Early runs were hit-or-miss. It didn’t take Georgia long to surpass their Jacksonville output, but the Dawgs had trouble sustaining drives after their initial score. Kentucky had seven tackles for loss in the first half alone, leaving Georgia behind schedule on second and third downs. At one point late in the first half, 25% of Georgia’s carries had resulted in a loss.

Whether there was a scheme adjustment or just a fire lit underneath the offense, the Dawgs finished the game with 19 straight positive rushing plays. That didn’t necessarily lead to big gains – Michel’s 26-yard scoring run was the lone explosive run – but eliminating lost yardage plays kept things manageable for Georgia’s comeback. The tailbacks helped too. Brian Herrien’s lone run came in the third quarter, and he turned contact in the backfield into a modest two-yard gain. 2nd-and-8 isn’t the best, but it looks a lot better and gives you more playcalling options than 2nd-and-13.

I had started to wonder if Georgia had abandoned the run again when Eason came out firing on six straight plays early in the fourth quarter down by five points. The spread passing attack worked to move the ball inside the Kentucky 30. With the Wildcat defense on their heels after giving up chunks of yards through the air, Georgia ran Sony Michel wide between right guard and tackle. McKenzie and Ridley made good blocks downfield against defenders dropping into coverage, and Michel had enough speed to bounce outside and down the sideline for the go-ahead score. We haven’t seen the Georgia passing game work to soften up the run defense all that often, but here it worked at the best possible time.

Sony Michel’s contribution to the final drive made the win a whole lot easier. Terry Godwin’s nice run after catch along the sideline got Georgia inside the mythical field goal range, and we’ve seen a lot of teams accept that much and settle for the field goal after a couple of centering runs. Michel was able to add an extra 22 yards on 3 runs in the final minute to turn a pressure-packed attempt of 40 yards or so into a glorified extra point.

It’s no knock on Chubb, but I wouldn’t have an issue with Michel announced as a starter.

Coaching

Kirby Smart has taken some hits for clock managament this year, but the end of this one went about as well as you could hope for. It started with the defensive timeout with four minutes remaning. Smart admitted that the timeout had more to do with some freshmen out of position than slowing the Kentucky running game that had pounded its way inside the Georgia 10. Still, the Bulldog defense stiffened on the next two plays and forced a throw into the endzone on third down that was well-defended by Parrish. Georgia had two minutes and two timeouts for their winning drive, and everything from playcalling to clock management to execution was on point. It helps that there wasn’t a sack, penalty, or long third down to strain Georgia’s cool temperament, but that’s what being in command of the moment will get you.