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Post Georgia 49 – Oregon 3: About that rebuild…

Tuesday September 6, 2022

Georgia’s offense was nearly flawless in a 49-3 win over Oregon. So, naturally, let’s start with the defense.

I’ll give the offense its due, but in a way their performance was expected. Well – maybe that wasn’t expected. You could argue though that a chief preseason plot was the anticipated strength of the Georgia offense led by its returning senior quarterback, a loaded tight end room, plenty of experienced skill talent, and a solid offensive line. If anything about the offense was surprising it was that much of what we heard during the offseason wasn’t just the usual preseason sunshine pumping.

The defense on the other hand lost nine players to the NFL, and no position group was spared. Yes, Georgia had recruited well. Yes, Jalen Carter, Nolan Smith, Christopher Smith, and Kelee Ringo were outstanding players around which to rebuild. “Rebuild” was the key word. How far would the defense fall? How much would they miss Dean, Davis, and all of the other mainstays from the 2021 unit? How long would it take their talented but inexperienced replacements to get up to speed?

The defense was far from perfect, but three points is three points. It might have felt a little disorienting to see the defense bend a little more than we’re used to. Oregon had only one three-and-out, and they had five drives of over 30 yards with only a field goal to show for it. Field position helped: Oregon’s best starting field position was their own 25 after seven Podlesny touchbacks. Georgia’s defense might not have been as dominant and active in the backfield as they were a year ago, but they were very effective at limiting explosive plays and betting that Oregon wouldn’t be able to nibble their way 75 yards down the field. Though Oregon drove the ball and converted nearly 50% of third downs, Georgia held them to just 4.6 yards per play. That wasn’t quite the 4.1 YPP standard set by last season’s defense, but it would have still been 7th best in the nation last year.

After the front seven’s turn in the spotlight in 2021, Georgia’s secondary shone in this win. Oregon had just one completion over 20 yards, and that came right before halftime as Georgia went into prevent coverage. Georgia’s five leading tacklers were defensive backs. That had a bit to do with Oregon’s approach – they attacked the perimeter with short passes and runs and put the Georgia secondary in a position to have to make plays. The secondary was up to the job. Oregon managed just 4.7 yards per pass attempt, had only a couple of runs longer than ten yards, and weren’t able to take advantage of Bo Nix’s mobility to create big plays.

Bo Nix jokes aside, the defense bottled up a four-year starter, limited his dangerous scrambling ability, and forced him into key mistakes. Oregon outgained Georgia on the ground, but 67 of their 140 rushing yards came on the final drive against Georgia’s reserve defenders. The Ducks never really tried to establish the run, and they quickly found themselves in comeback mode. Nix ended up as Oregon’s leading rusher with only 37 yards. Just about every preview of Oregon’s new offense under Kenny Dillingham included the words “fast” and “explosive”. The Ducks did try some tempo, but Georgia took away the explosive elements. If the plays to the perimeter were meant to bring the defensive backs up to open up shots downfield, it didn’t work. Georgia defended the few long pass plays and tackled well enough to keep the shorter plays from becoming large gains.

If there was one area of the defense to build on, it was the pass rush. Creating pressure with just a four-man rush was a strength of the 2021 defense and a concern heading into 2022 with so many key defensive linemen now in the NFL. The Bulldogs did flush Nix a few times, but Georgia recorded zero sacks and zero QB hurries. The only tackles for loss came from defensive backs. It’s true that Oregon’s experienced offensive line is a strength, and it’s also true that the defensive line won’t make many plays with a mobile quarterback and so much of the action directed outside. Oregon still had enough obvious passing situations that you might have expected someone to get through to Nix a time or two as Georgia did when Nix played for Auburn. We know what Jalen Carter can do, and true freshman Mykel Williams earned a start. It didn’t really matter in this game, and there’s plenty of time to work on it before you see an opponent against whom a better pass rush could make a difference.

Perimeter plays were also a feature of Georgia’s offensive game plan, but the Bulldogs were far more successful with their perimeter attack. Seth Emerson’s in-game observation that it felt a lot like the Michigan game was spot-on. It wasn’t just Georgia taking early control of the game; it was also in how the Bulldogs approached the game. Once again Georgia came out attacking the perimeter with quick passes using a mix of tight ends, tailbacks, and receivers. Against Michigan the objective was to neutralize some outstanding edge rushers. Oregon’s defensive strength was its middle linebackers. Georgia spread the ball around to ten different players and made those linebackers cover and chase. Even Georgia’s red zone offense continued to attack the outside. The first touchdown was a ballet of misdirection leading to McConkey’s score. Bennett scored on a keeper around the end. McIntosh scored on a sweep for the third touchdown.

Of course success on the outside can’t happen without blocking, and Georgia got outstanding blocking at all levels. McConkey doesn’t score without Bowers and Mitchell handling their assignments. Bowers and Washington combined to give McIntosh a clear path around the edge. This is a payoff of Georgia’s experience at the offensive skill positions: there’s no need to convince anyone about the value of blocking for one another. Bowers might block for McConkey on one play, and a few plays later it will be the other way around. With a few exceptions Stetson Bennett didn’t throw many deep balls. Georgia rang up 439 receiving yards and nearly 12 yards per pass attempt with a bevy of passes to open space, excellent downfield blocking, and skill players able to get through tackles and make defenders miss. The blocking started up front: Oregon didn’t record a sack and had just one tackle behind the line of scrimmage. Oregon’s leading edge rusher Brandon Dorlus was neutralized and not a factor. In a game in which Georgia leaned on the pass, Bennett had plenty of time on all but a couple of snaps. Though Georgia got most of its yardage through the air, this was still very much a physically dominant showing from the offense.

Given that protection, Bennett looked like the composed quarterback who led Georgia from behind to two fourth quarter touchdowns against Alabama. He was in complete command of the offense, spread the ball around, and checked down rather than force passes. He even threw a couple away. It’s a sign of his maturation that he only ran twice – and one of those was the designed keeper at the goal line. Instead he continued to look downfield for better options – even when escaping a sack in the red zone – and let the receivers get the yards. His passes were crisp and accurate allowing the receivers to maximize yards after the catch. The back-shoulder dart to Mitchell was textbook – as was the reception. Georgia might or might not be as pass-heavy in the coming weeks, but we know now that Georgia’s breadth of offensive weapons is as advertised, that Bennett is more than capable of getting the ball to those weapons, and that Todd Monken can be ruthless in deploying those weapons to put points on the board.

  • Georgia isn’t likely to have another game with this kind of national spotlight on it until the Cocktail Party. It was important for the defending national champions to make a statement in this game because whatever perception came from this game would have to last for a while. The dominant performance helped to reset a few preseason narratives not just for the team or defense but even for individuals like Bennett.
  • I wondered before the season who might step into the role James Cook had developed for himself as a versatile weapon out of the backfield. Kenny McIntosh staked his claim by leading the team both in receptions and receiving yards. His best run came on a sweep after lining up on the outside of the formation. We’ll likely see more traditional runs from McIntosh in the coming weeks, but he’s shown that he can be effective in just about any role.
  • I considered Warren McClendon Georgia’s most underrated player for good reason, but Ladd McConkey made his case on Saturday. AD Mitchell continued to be a threat on the outside. The tight ends are phenoms. But Georgia’s second-leading receiver behind McIntosh was the dependable McConkey. Ladd had a rushing and receiving touchdown and had to wind through traffic on both.
  • Carson Beck continued the superlative day for Georgia’s quarterbacks. He had a single incompletion, made good decisions, and led an impressive touchdown drive. It’s nice to be able to salt away the game with guys like Kendall Milton, Kearis Jackson, and Daijun Edwards at your disposal.
  • David Daniel-Sisavanh was quietly among Georgia’s leading tacklers as the coaches rotated defensive backs. One of his tackles was an impressive Cine-like stick that halted a ball carrier.
  • What a debut for Malaki Starks. It’s almost as if recruiting matters. The true freshman was inserted at safety early and almost immediately came up with a highlight interception. He later broke up a third down pass in the red zone that held Oregon to a field goal attempt. Starks ended up as Georgia’s leading tackler (8 total, 5 solo) and was moved all over the defensive side of the ball. Most impressive was his speed – he was perfectly in position and under control to make his interception, and he closed quickly (nearly coming away with another INT) on his pass break-up. Starks could likely be a Mecole Hardman-like star on the other side of the ball, but for now the greatest need is in the secondary, and Starks was up to the job. Of course he can get even better – he got caught out of position and let an Oregon receiver break wide open until Christopher Smith made a spectacular play to break up the pass.
  • As for Smith, he loves making gorgeous interceptions in big season openers, doesn’t he? Smith played as you’d hope a senior defensive leader would: in addition to the pick, he was second on the team in tackles, had a tackle for loss, and broke up Oregon’s best chance at a big downfield completion.
  • Smael Mondon’s name was called often. As a starting middle linebacker he was used in multiple roles against the run and pass. He and Jamon Dumas-Johnson combined for six tackles, but often the middle of the field was open for short passes or draws. Their technique and discipline will continue to improve, but there was no question about the speed and athleticism at the position.
  • Loved seeing the reserve defenders get the stop at the end. The program’s standards have taken root in another generation of talented defenders.
  • Brett Thorson was impressive in a low-stress punting situation. Georgia never attempted a field goal, but it was interesting to see Bennett as the holder on extra points. Oregon had no interest in returning kickoffs after Dan Jackson made a great tackle to start the game.
  • Oregon will be just fine. Georgia fans have blocked Nicholls State from memory, but coaching changes can be turbulent. It can take a while for even the best coaches to establish their standards, and Oregon went up against a fine-tuned machine that didn’t have to spend the offseason adjusting to a new system and culture. Lanning has come up in winning programs, understands the importance of recruiting, and has the energy and drive to carry the program through their transition.

Post 22 questions for the 2022 season

Wednesday August 31, 2022

1) Where’s your head? We approach this season in unfamiliar territory – Georgia is the Dawg that finally caught the car. Hopefully, as fans, we can relax a bit and gain perspective on this era of Georgia football. The title eases 40 years of angst, but it’s more than that. Georgia fans can be confident in Kirby Smart’s claim that “we built a program to be sustained.” Yes, sustaining the program is constant and hard work, but that’s Smart’s problem and an implied expectation of his new large contract extension. Fans have the luxury of knowing the right man is in charge and enjoy having one of the best programs in the nation. Are you able to smell the roses, or do you find the familiar nerves and worry creeping back in with the start of another season?

2) Can they repeat? We might as well start with the big question. The most admirable aspect of Alabama’s program has been the consistency. It’s not easy to get to the top, but ask Auburn, FSU, or LSU how quickly things can come apart once you reach the summit. Alabama has survived nearly constant change in areas that you’d expect to hobble most programs. The hardest part might be sustaining the hunger to put in the work that it takes to maintain the standard. The leadership required to keep a team cohesive and working towards a collective goal has to be cultivated and reinforced every year. Kirby Smart has been around more than his share of defending champions and knows which buttons to push. He’s pushed the offseason message that last year’s accomplishments belong to last year’s team. Even if Georgia’s motivation is intact there’s still the practical matter of replacing a tremendous amount of talent from the championship team. That’s where recruiting comes in, and it’s the basis for Smart’s claim that his program is built for the long-term. Georgia’s roster is full, and it’s full of four straight top-5 recruiting classes. From that pool of talent Georgia must find new leaders and many starters, but they’re not starting from scratch. That depth of talent, some important returning production, and Smart’s process-oriented approach to building sustained success has Georgia again among the contenders.

3) Can last season’s model be duplicated? Offense seemed to be the imperative after several years of wide-open passing attacks dominating the sport. Georgia brought in Todd Monken in 2020 to bring its underperforming offense up to par. 2021’s elite Georgia defense turned out to be somewhat contrarian. The defense and its stars were as much a part of the story as Joe Burrow, DeVonta Smith, or Trevor Lawrence had been for their championship teams *. That defense also featured in an historic NFL Draft class, and Georgia will be replacing all but a handful of defensive starters. The danger in holding on to the 2021 model most likely isn’t a collapse; Georgia has recruited too well. Instead the defense might “regress” from elite to outstanding. For comparison it might be a return to the 2018 and 2019 seasons in which the defense was good enough against all but the best offenses. That puts the spotlight back on the offense, the ability of Stetson Bennett, the creativity of Todd Monken, and even how Kirby Smart approaches the game. The trends that reshaped the game over the past decade haven’t gone away. The best teams will always be well-rounded, but explosive high-scoring offenses still tend to rise to the top. Georgia’s offensive evolution must continue.

* – Each time this comes up, I’m compelled to note that Georgia’s offense did take a big step forward in 2021, finished 3rd in offensive SP+, and had six players drafted. Games were not won in spite of the offense.

4) Can Georgia get off to a more impressive start? The Bulldogs were glad to come away with shaky wins in their last two season openers. In 2020 the quarterback depth chart melted down before our eyes, and Georgia trailed Arkansas at halftime before Stetson Bennett led a second half rout. Last season the offense managed a scant three points as the defense did the heavy lifting against Clemson. Yes, getting a win is the most important thing, and that’s also going to be true in this year’s opener. There’s going to be a little more scrutiny of Georgia in this year’s opener though. The Dawgs are the defending national national champions, and they’re double-digit favorites against a talented opponent. Two years ago D’Wan Mathis was rattled. Last season we learned that J.T. Daniels played through an injury. Stetson Bennett is now a returning multi-year starter. There will always be first-game hiccups, but we should expect a cleaner and more productive showing from the offense in this opener. Georgia likely won’t have this much national attention on a game until the trip to Jacksonville, so this first impression could last a while.

5) How will the perception of opponents shift during the season? Last season few expected to have nationally-televised top-15 battles against undefeated Arkansas and Kentucky teams. Each year our outlook on the schedule has to adjust as some teams overachieve and others flop. Right now it looks as if Oregon and Kentucky will be two of the tougher games on the schedule. We’ll watch whether Florida can bounce back, and we should know plenty about Tennessee by November. Auburn is always a candidate for chaos especially when most seem to have written them off. Quarterbacks with multiple years in a Mike Leach offense seem like a good bet, and that late-season trip to Starkville could be uncomfortable.

6) Are we done with Covid disruptions? No Georgia game had to be rescheduled last season. Very few players missed time during the regular season. Towards bowl season though things began to fall apart as a new variant swept across the nation. At least five bowls were canceled outright. Kirby Smart admitted that his team was dealing with Covid issues during December but would be “near full strength” entering the playoff. Things were dicey enough in December that the CFP had to release official contingencies that included the possibility of a forfeit or even a vacated title. Fortunately things never got to that point, but the close call showed how a spike in cases nearly caused chaos in an otherwise fairly normal season. As Covid becomes endemic another seasonal wave isn’t out of the question as we head into November and December. Teams and conferences should at least get out ahead of things and review possibly outdated protocols before they’re needed.

7) Has it really been four years since Georgia Tech played in Athens? When last we saw the Yellow Jackets in Athens in 2018 the Georgia defensive line was doing its part to end Tech’s option era. Geoff Collins hasn’t brought a team to Athens yet, and there’s a non-zero chance he might not get the opportunity. Tech hasn’t fared well under Collins, and expectations aren’t high in 2022. If things go poorly enough there’s plenty of precedent for making a midseason change. What’s more interesting is how the rivalry has changed over those four years. In 2018 Tech was riding a two-game winning streak in Athens. Though Georgia was heavily favored and led 38-7 by halftime it was still a sold-out rivalry game with plenty of intensity and build-up. That wasn’t so much the case last year. Tech fans showed little interest in the game, Georgia fans were ready to have it over with, and the Tech team put up little resistance. You wonder this year how many Tech fans will bother to show and whether the tailgate scene will more closely resemble a September mid-major game. Even stalwarts like myself who see value in the rivalry find it difficult to place this game in its proper context now. One thing that keeps us going – Georgia is still six wins away from the longest winning streak in the series.

8) (When) will any of Georgia’s injured players contribute? We know that player fitness is a spectrum – even those completely cleared to play are often dealing with aches and pains. Arian Smith’s ankle injury cast means he won’t see the field for a while, if at all. Kendall Milton’s hamstring might not seem like much, but the season-ending injury to promising freshman Andrew Paul makes Milton’s availability that much more important. Tate Ratledge is working back from a tough injury that can linger. Dominick Blaylock has had a couple of devastating knee injuries and a much tougher path back than, say, George Pickens. On the other side of the ball, can Rian Davis be part of the answer at inside linebacker after leg surgery? Is Tykee Smith able to have the impact expected of his transfer in last season? Having any of these players available would be a big boost to their respective positions, but injuries have timelines of their own.

9) Will Georgia have the same starting quarterback for an entire season? It hasn’t happened since 2019, and we might have even seen a change that year if fans had their way. Performance and injuries have led to three different starters since 2020 – four if you include Newman. Lest we forget the 2021 starting quarterback was in doubt as late as December after a loss in the SEC Championship. The two playoff games were vindication for Stetson Bennett, and there hasn’t been much doubt since the Orange Bowl about QB1. Bennett seems as entrenched as any starter since Fromm, so there’s a chance of having him complete the season. The biggest question at quarterback is further down the depth chart. Georgia has three well-regarded prospects behind Bennett, but there’s very little experience. Carson Beck seems most likely to come off the bench first, and a favorable schedule should give he and the other quarterbacks a fair bit of playing time.

10) Will Adonai Mitchell build on his big catch? DeVonta Smith only caught eight passes as a true freshman in 2017, but Georgia fans will never forget the one catch he had in the national title game. Two years later Smith became a first-round pick and Heisman Trophy winner. No one is expecting an invitation to New York for Mitchell (yet), but with the departure of George Pickens (and to some degree Jermaine Burton) there’s room for a higher profile for Georgia’s young receivers. Though Mitchell will have plenty of help both on the outside and in the slot someone other than the tight ends will have to stretch the field and become a dependable target for Bennett.

11) Can anyone fill the James Cook role? When you saw James Cook split out wide taking a linebacker with him, you knew what was coming. Cook’s development into a complete tailback was a gratifying end to a career that started slowly. After rushing for 472 yards and catching 24 passes in his first two seasons, Cook blossomed in Todd Monken’s offense. He rushed for 1,031 yards, caught 43 passes, and found the endzone 16 times as a junior and senior. A 67-yard run in the title game led to Georgia’s first touchdown, and Cook threw a key block that gave Stetson Bennett time to find Mitchell for the go-ahead score. It was that pass protection that makes Cook more difficult to replace. Kenny McIntosh seems like the most likely back to end his career the way Cook did. McIntosh had only 328 yards rushing in 2021, but that’s to be expected playing behind Cook and Zamir White and was still good enough for 5.7 yards per carry. More interesting was McIntosh’s 22 receptions. That was sixth-best on the team and only five receptions behind Cook. We know McIntosh has the diverse skill set that Monken likes – it’s the details like pass protection that could set McIntosh apart or hold him back.

12) Will a change of scenery help Stacy Searels? Searels is back for a second stint as Georgia’s offensive line coach. From 2007-2010 his lines paved the way for backs like Knowshon Moreno and of course opened the gaps in the delightful “We Run This State” game in 2009. His most recent stop at North Carolina had mixed results. The Tar Heels had strong running games in 2020 and 2021 which led offenses that finished among the top 15 in SP+. On the other hand Carolina’s prized quarterback Sam Howell took beating after beating in all three of his seasons due to poor protection. Howell was sacked 8 times in a horrifying 2021 upset loss to Georgia Tech; Stetson Bennett was only sacked once by the Jackets. More concerning is the suggestion that Searels struggled with teaching RPO concepts in an Air Raid system which is exactly the kind of offense he’ll join in Athens. Hopefully Todd Monken can find more success working with Searels than Phil Longo did. Searels’ personnel at Carolina might have been a factor, but he’ll have to keep recruiting at the same level as Sam Pittman and Matt Luke in order to sustain Georgia’s talent edge on the offensive line.

13) Is Broderick Jones the next great left tackle? A year ago many anticipated Jones eventually taking over at left tackle during the season. Jamaree Salyer was Georgia’s best lineman and capable of playing tackle or guard, but in an optimal situation Salyer might have settled at guard. Things turned out to be less-than-optimal right away as Tate Ratledge was injured in the opener and the shuffling of the line began. Salyer remained at left tackle and performed well. Jones saw time during the year as a reserve as Salyer battled an injury, but his big moment came in the national title game. Scrambling for answers against a tough Alabama defensive front Georgia inserted Jones at left tackle and moved Salyer to right guard in the second quarter. You can point to many reasons why Georgia won the title, but better protection and a more productive running game in the second half belong high on the list.

14) Who is Georgia’s most underrated player? Warren McClendon comes to mind. It’s no surprise to see Brock Bowers, Jalen Carter, or Kelee Ringo on the SEC coaches’ preseason first team. But how many would have guessed McClendon? The line has been unsettled over the past year with injuries forcing various combinations at guard and center and even left tackle. But since 2000 McClendon has held down the right tackle spot with quiet competence and consistency. That stability might have even led reserve tackle Amarius Mims to considered a transfer during the offseason, but fortunately Mims returned to provide depth and continue his development. McClendon might have even earned his way into the tail end of last year’s draft class but decided to return as a redshirt junior as the only Georgia lineman on the coaches’ preseason SEC first team.

15) Is Georgia’s tight end depth that much of an advantage? Three of Georgia’s tight ends seem to be sure draft picks, and another promising true freshman is joining the group. We’ve dreamed all summer about using the magical 13 personnel that has three of them on the field at once. Even Todd Monken has had to tap the brakes on the enthusiasm noting that his receiver room would empty out into the transfer portal if Georgia featured its tight ends as much as some have (half-jokingly) suggested. There doesn’t seem to be any question about the talent. Bowers led all Georgia receivers with 56 catches and 13 TD as a freshman. Gilbert was an instant success at LSU with 35 catches also as a freshman. Washington’s stature never fails to impress. We know the offense can flourish with one standout tight end. The trick is how all three will fit into an offense that aims to be at least as productive as it was a year ago. Can Bowers and Gilbert come close to their freshman numbers with the other competing for receptions? Can Washington remain healthy enough to far exceed the ten receptions he had in 2021? We can at least skip the annual jokes about finally using the tight ends – now we see if their role can be maximized in the offense of a national contender.

16) What’s with this co-coordinator thing? People will tell you it’s really Kirby Smart’s defense the same way they told you ten years ago it’s really Nick Saban’s defense. No doubt Smart will always have his touch on the defense, but there’s no question he’s had some top-notch help at coordinator. Mel Tucker set a high bar for the Georgia defense. Dan Lanning raised it even higher. Now young inside linebackers coach Glenn Schumann and veteran SEC coach Will Muschamp will try to maintain that high level of play as co-coordinators. Each has specific responsibilities within the defense – Schumann with the inside linebackers and Muschamp with the safeties and star position. We’re still not sure how it’s going to play out in terms of playcalling or scheme. Perhaps that’s where Smart comes in – what Georgia wants to accomplish on defense and the skills expected at each position are program-level standards that won’t change. It will still be interesting to see who’s dialing up specific pressures and coverages within the game.

17) Who will help Jalen Carter? I touched on this earlier in the month. It’s easier to stand out when you have Jordan Davis and Travon Walker drawing plenty of attention, but Carter is fantastic in his own right. Protection schemes will focus on Carter this season until other linemen can make them pay for it. Worst case is Georgia having to send additional linebackers or defensive backs to get the kind of pressure they achieved rushing only four last season. Best case is one of more of a deep group of 2021 reserves stepping up or even a newcomer like Mykel Williams or Bear Alexander having the impact Carter and Walker had as true freshmen.

18) Can Nolan Smith become another defensive superstar? When we last saw the Bulldogs Nolan Smith put the game, season, and championship to bed with a sack of Bryce Young. It was a huge relief a few days later when he became one of the few defensive starters to announce his return for a senior season. Now as a senior Smith’s role will increase, but what does that mean? In 2019 Smith was the nation’s top prospect ahead of future NFL top 5 picks Kayvon Thibodeaux and Derek Stingley. Smith hasn’t underachieved; he’s been a weapon on the edge since his freshman season in 2019. We also know that Georgia’s outside linebackers aren’t all about the sacks. Robert Beal, also returning for a final season, led the team with 6.5 sacks. Smith tallied 4.5. You only have to re-watch the Florida game to see what’s asked of the position and to see the kind of game-changing impact Smith can have. Smith can drop into coverage and get an interception, force fumbles (3 last season), and, yes, rush the passer. As seniors and two of the most experienced returning defenders Smith and Beal will be expected to generate consistent havoc from the edge. Smith’s ceiling is as high as Jalen Carter’s – let’s see if he can get there.

19) Who captains the defense? Nakobe Dean followed a great line from Roquan Smith to Monty Rice as defensive leaders from the inside linebacker position. That role is up for grabs again. The most experienced linebackers, Nolan Smith and Robert Beal, are edge guys who usually aren’t in a position to adjust the defense. Christopher Smith will have the veteran leadership role from the safety position that Georgia enjoyed with J.R. Reed. Jamon Dumas-Johnson seems to have the most solid hold on an inside linebacker position. Smael Mondon is one of the more athletic players at the position but is catching up on experience. Trezmen Marshall, if he can remain healthy, has that experience that could give him the edge for playing time.

20) Will we see more combinations in the secondary? Last year Georgia didn’t have many options in the defensive backfield especially after Tykee Smith was lost for the season. Though there was rotation at star and in dime packages, the core combination of Kendrick, Ringo, Cine, and Smith didn’t vary much. Georgia looks to open the 2022 season with Ringo, Lassiter, Jackson, and Christopher Smith in their base package. Modern offenses often require a nickel look, and that position could be competitive throughout the season. William Poole came up big in the national title game. Tykee Smith is nearly back from his knee injury. Across the unit there are 11 freshmen and sophomores who could develop during the season. Javon Bullard and David Daniel-Sisavanh will fight for playing time at star and safety. Malaki Starks could be tough to keep off the field. If Georgia has issues up front with pressure, the secondary will be tested more this year. There’s enough talent among the underclassmen that seniority alone might not cut it.

21) Should we be concerned about punting? Georgia was among the best in the nation last season in starting field position. Of course the defense had its role, but Jake Camarda overcame inconsistency in previous seasons to become a field position weapon and a mid-round draft pick. You never really notice punting until things (and punts) go sideways. Georgia will likely look to a true freshman, Brett Thorson, and hope that there’s not a huge drop-off.

22) Is the return game settled? That elusive punt return touchdown remains just out of Kearis Jackson’s grasp; he’ll have one more season to get in the endzone. Georgia was an average kickoff return team, and Kenny McIntosh was usually the man to bring it out of the endzone. Both Jackson and McIntosh are capable returners, but it might be their experience that keeps coaches from shaking things up. Although long returns are great job #1 is cleanly fielding the kick each time. Georgia knows it has two men who can do that. Younger speedsters like Malaki Starks are waiting but might not get their chance for another year.


Post Nice track you’ve got there

Saturday August 27, 2022

Kirby Smart isn’t being subtle about what he’s eyeing for Georgia’s next facilities upgrade.

“One of the toughest (problems) for us here is the field space. We’re not able to operate on side-by-side fields, which right now we’re the only team in the SEC that has that. It makes it tough when you try to transition and practice outside.”

With a newly-completed indoor facility and expanded football complex built on the footprint of former practice fields, outdoor practice space is now at a premium. There’s only one direction in which to expand, and new track coach Caryl Smith Gilbert knows how this story ends.

“I know Kirby wants our track land for football,” she said. “Maybe we could talk about building a new stadium somewhere else which would be great because then we can make it how we want it.”

Smith Gilbert isn’t being blindsided here. Facilities were part of the discussion when she took the job a year ago, and they were a factor in the departure of her predecessor. You don’t leave a new $16 million track renovation on the opposite side of the country for subpar facilities at Georgia without knowing that you’ll be taken care of.

The only question is the timetable. Georgia has a handful of facilities projects either underway or approved in the short-term including tennis, baseball, and the Sanford Stadium renovation. In time though the Spec Towns track facility will almost surely be redeveloped as part of the football practice complex, and Georgia will open an impressive new off-campus track stadium guided by the vision of Caryl Smith Gilbert.


Post Georgia’s 88(?!) for 2022

Friday August 26, 2022

Everyone loves those videos you see this time of year of a deserving walk-on learning that he has earned a scholarship. For many it’s a life-changing moment which is why family members are often involved in the reveal. The player is mobbed by his teammates who see the work put in by walk-ons with no promise of playing time or glory. It’s a reality though that most walk-ons won’t have this experience. Scholarship limits are what they are, and coaches must balance the current roster with future recruiting plans.

You’re probably not going to see any of these videos coming from Georgia this year. Based on returning players, offseason attrition, and the incoming signing class Georgia currently has 88 scholarship players. Yes, 88 is more than the NCAA limit of 85 total scholarship players. The 85 limit has held fast even as the NCAA allowed waivers and exceptions for annual signing limits due to the Covid disruptions. With Georgia at 88 the staff will have to be creative with the numbers. No, Georgia isn’t going to cut three players in the next week. It’s a common enough problem in college football that terms like “greyshirt” and “blueshirt” have crept into the college football lexicon as descriptions for postponing enrollment or a scholarship until a future date. It’s reasonable to expect that Kirby Smart and the staff have long since put this problem behind them, and it’s also likely that we’re not going to hear about the details.

The bigger point is that Georgia’s roster is bursting at the seams entering the 2022 season. It helps to explain why Georgia wasn’t as active in the transfer portal as we might have expected. Perhaps some anticipated attrition didn’t occur (recall that Amarius Mims entered and then withdrew from the portal.) It’s doubtful that Smart would have passed on a can’t-miss transfer at a position of need, but the tight numbers also meant that Georgia wasn’t desperate to fill the roster with transfers. The numbers also mean that some very high-profile walk-ons like Dan Jackson and Jack Podlesny will remain off scholarship. This is a great case for NIL and other permissible benefits, and hopefully they’ll be taken care of.

Below is our annual look at the 85 – or 88 – scholarship players for 2022. The first thing that stands out is that Georgia has only nine seniors, and that includes a couple taking advantage of an additional year of eligibility. That’s the reality both of the transfer portal and the talent drain that led to last April’s historic NFL Draft results. The flip side should be no surprise – Georgia has 60 players who are redshirt sophomores or younger. That’s up from 54 in 2021. That increase occurred because Kirby Smart took advantage of Covid-related NCAA adjustments to the annual signing limits. Georgia’s 38 freshmen (true freshmen plus redshirts) are up from 33 a year ago and include 30 true freshmen.

The positions are allocated almost exactly as they were a year ago. There’s one additional tight end, offensive lineman, and linebacker to get us from 85 to 88. We can see positions like offensive line and defensive back with only three upperclassmen and a next wave of freshmen and sophomores developing. (Keep in mind that redshirt sophomores like Broderick Jones, Kelee Ringo, and Arik Gilbert will be draft-eligible.) We might as well count Jalen Carter among the seniors, and there are a handful of redshirt juniors on the defensive line who may choose to graduate. There aren’t any sophomore defensive linemen, so this year’s strong freshman class will need to be followed by another. A strong junior season might lead Kendall Milton to consider the draft and raise the priority of the tailback position in recruiting or the portal.

There are only eight redshirt freshmen, most of them on the offensive or defensive line. Georgia played a lot of true freshmen in 2021, and a fair number of them could end up as starters or significant contributors this year. True freshmen could challenge for playing time again at nearly every position but offensive line; 18 of Georgia’s 30 true freshmen were early enrollees and went through the offseason program. The Bulldogs do have a bit more experience at the offensive skill positions than they had a year ago, and that experience has fueled optimism for an even more productive offense in 2022.

(Players are listed by class. Possible Day-One starters in a base formation are in bold – just a best guess. [R] indicates a player who has redshirted. A star(*) indicates an early enrollee.)

ELIGIBILITY REMAINING
4 YEARS 3 YEARS 2 YEARS 1 YEAR
QB (4) Brock Vandagriff [R]
Gunner Stockton *
Carson Beck [R]   Stetson Bennett
RB (5) Andrew Paul
Branson Robinson
  Daijun Edwards
Kendall Milton
Kenny McIntosh
TE (6) Oscar Delp * Brock Bowers
Arik Gilbert [R]
Darnell Washington
Ryland Goede [R]
Brett Seither [R]
 
WR (11) Chandler Smith *
De’Nylon Morrissette *
Dillon Bell
Cole Speer
Ladd McConkey [R]
Arian Smith [R]
Jackson Meeks
Adonai (AD) Mitchell
Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint
Dominick Blaylock [R]
Kearis Jackson
OL (18) Dylan Fairchild [R]
Micah Morris [R]
Jared Wilson [R]
Earnest Greene *
Griffin Scroggs *
Aliou Bah *
Jacob Hood *
Drew Bobo
Amarius Mims
Austin Blaske [R]
Broderick Jones [R]
Chad Lindberg [R]
Tate Ratledge [R]
Sedrick Van Pran [R]
Devin Willock [R]
Warren McClendon [R]
Xavier Truss [R]
Warren Ericson
DL (14) Tyrion Ingram-Dawkins [R]
Jonathan Jefferson [R]
Mykel Williams *
Bear Alexander *
Christen Miller
Shone Washington *
C.J. Madden *
  Warren Brinson
Jalen Carter
Nazir Stackhouse
Zion Logue [R]
Tymon Mitchell [R]
Bill Norton [R]
Tramel Walthour
LB (14) Xavian Sorey [R]
Marvin Jones, Jr.
Darris Smith
Jalon Walker *
C.J. Washington *
EJ Lightsey
Chaz Chambliss
Jamon Dumas-Johnson
Smael Mondon
MJ Sherman
Rian Davis [R]
Trezman Marshall [R]
Nolan Smith
Robert Beal
DB (14) Nyland Green [R]
Malaki Starks *
Jaheim Singletary
Daylen Everette *
Julian Humphrey
Marcus Washington
JaCorey Thomas *
Javon Bullard
David Daniel-Sisavanh
Kamari Lassiter
Kelee Ringo [R]
Tykee Smith William Poole
Christopher Smith
SPEC (2) Brett Thorson * Jared Zirkel [R]    
38 22 19 9

Post Sanford renovations get the go-ahead

Saturday August 13, 2022

The Board of Regents gave final approval for improvements to Sanford Stadium announced earlier this year. Most of the work will target the south side of the stadium – reconfigured gate access, wider 100-level concourses, and better restrooms. The second phase of the project will move the press box to a new facility in the southwest corner of the stadium, reclaim the current press box for premium seating, and add new suites. While the southern approach to the stadium from Sanford Drive will look quite different, the improvements will be welcome in one of the most constricted and underserved areas of the stadium. With Reed Alley providing breathing room for the north stands and the east side opened up by Gate 6, this project will tackle the biggest remaining area that needs more space.

One detail that raised some eyebrows was the addition of temporary gates on the south end of the bridge. It’s fantastic that there will be more entry points, but does it mean that the bridge will only be open to ticketed people on gameday? That would require some additional reconfiguration of Gate 2 and access to the north side of the stadium for the large number of fans walking from South Campus. It would also cut off access to the bookstore, student center, and Tate plaza for fans funneling in from the east and south parts of campus. Yes, you could redirect that foot traffic down Lumpkin Street, but that’s pretty far our of the way with greater elevation changes. The bridge isn’t just part of the iconic view from inside the stadium; it’s also a hub of movement and gathering on game day. It will be worth watching this area as the designs evolve. Some sort of corridor across the bridge needs to be a part of the plan.

I believe this project might eventually have a side effect related to another story from earlier in the year. In the spring we learned that there would be no alcohol sales in Sanford Stadium in 2022. Other Georgia venues from Stegeman Coliseum to the softball and baseball fields began selling beer this past year. From my visits to those venues, it didn’t seem like a big deal. We’ve also seen alcohol sales at other SEC football stadiums, and, again, no big deal. I don’t think anyone making the decisions at Georgia is opposed to alcohol sales at Sanford Stadium.

It’s more likely that the delay in selling alcohol at Sanford Stadium has to do with limited space in key areas of the stadium – particularly on the south side. It’s a constraint we pointed out right away since the SEC loosened its restrictions in 2019. Adding beer lines to the already-cramped concourses would invite disaster and make the game experience even less enjoyable for fans. I don’t particularly care if fans want to waste time in line for a beer. I do care about main walkways or even other concessions being choked off by those lines.

With expanded southside concourses and an opened-up Gate 9 area, there will be room for standalone beer stations on all sides of the stadium. Reed Alley on the north side has plenty of space. The Gate 6 area can work for the east stands. Once this project has been completed I think we’ll see Georgia move forward with alcohol sales at Sanford Stadium.


Post Spotlight on the Trench Mob

Thursday August 4, 2022

The start of any season brings questions, but replacing 15 NFL draft picks means that Georgia will be looking for high-impact players at just about every position. You can make a case for any of them as areas to watch during preseason camp. The secondary was already stretched thin in 2021 and must replace two starters. The offensive line had to start shuffling in the season opener and didn’t stop until the national championship game – and then lost two of the more consistent starters and the position coach. A couple of productive receivers are gone, and several of the more experienced returning receivers are in various stages of recovery from injuries. Turnover at the tailback and linebacker positions is as comprehensive as it’s been since 2018.

But I just don’t see how changes on a unit that lost three first-round draft picks wouldn’t have the most impact on Georgia’s goal of contending again in 2022.

One big reason for the success of last season’s defensive line was consistent quality among the unit. You could be concerned about Jordan Davis, but the overall #1 draft pick was right next to him. Wyatt certainly was no liability. Jalen Carter was as good as any of them. You could afford to rotate in less-experienced younger reserves without much of a drop-off because a couple of high draft picks were probably still on the field.

The line did so much for the 2021 team. At the very least it commanded enough attention to allow the linebacker trio of Dean, Tindall, and Walker to flourish. It was effective enough that Georgia often got adequate pressure only rushing four defenders. That didn’t stifle defensive creativity; the versatility of the linemen allowed the defense to remain unpredictable with pressure and create situations like Travon Walker and Nolan Smith combining for an interception while dropped back in pass coverage. Rushing only four also helped Georgia’s thin secondary unit – additional defenders could drop back into pass coverage.

The big question this year is whether other areas of the defense might become more exposed if the line isn’t as effective. We already know that the defense will have to replace a great deal of production at nearly every position, and each change will ripple throughout the rest of the defense. Will Jamon Dumas-Johnson face a tougher job than, say, Quay Walker had last season if blockers are more frequently getting to the next level? Will we see defensive backs targeted more if a four-man rush isn’t getting the same pressure?

None of that is to say that Georgia lacks options up front. Jalen Carter of course is the anchor of the line and a proven superstar. He will also likely be the target of frequent double-teams unless other linemen can make that a losing strategy. Can Carter be as effective when he is the focal point of protection schemes?

One positive is that experience isn’t a huge problem. Georgia rotates defensive linemen often, so last season’s reserves saw plenty of playing time even in the biggest of games. Brinson, Walthour, Stackhouse, and Logue all played in at least ten games. This year it will be their experience that allows Georgia to rotate in the next wave of talented newcomers. It didn’t take long for the talent of Travon Walker and Jalen Carter to show through, and someone like Mykel Williams, Bear Alexander, or Christen Miller might be the next rookie to stand out early in his career.

For Georgia to have anything close to the defense we’ve enjoyed for the past three seasons, that combination of returning experience and new talent on the defensive line will have to produce well enough for 1) Jalen Carter to have room to do his thing and 2) the rest of the defense to bring its own replacements up to speed without becoming liabilities.


Post “We built a program to be sustained.”

Thursday July 21, 2022

In the midst of heartbreak after the 2018 national title game, Kirby Smart told Georgia fans to keep their chins up. “I think everyone can see Georgia is gonna be a force to be reckoned with,” he said. “We’re not going anywhere.”

Now “we’re not going anywhere” can take on a different meaning if you’re at a program like Georgia Tech. But Smart’s message was clear: that 2017 season wasn’t going to be Georgia’s only bite of the apple, and it was only a matter of time before Georgia came out on top. The program had too many advantages and too strong a foundation to fade away. He was correct. Georgia maintained a high level of play from 2018-2020 and was well-positioned to compete for and win the 2021 national championship.

Now that Smart and Georgia finally won that elusive title, Smart wants to remind everyone that he really meant it on that cold night in January 2018. Title or no, Georgia is not going to concede any ground.

“We didn’t build this program on hoping for one-year wonders,” he explained at Wednesday’s SEC Media Days session. “We built a program to be sustained. This program was built to be here for a long time.” The attributes that kept Georgia competitive from 2017-2021 haven’t really changed. Smart isn’t going to make radical changes to how he runs his program, he’s not going to be less-focused on the details, and he’s not going to allow those around him to become complacent. His position is that this year’s team hasn’t earned anything yet, and the accomplishments of last season belong to that team.

But as Blutarsky noted the other day, other programs illustrate the challenge ahead of Smart. To quote Bill Connelly, “Of the past 10 national champions that weren’t coached by Saban, only half have finished in the AP top five the following year.”

If Smart’s Georgia program has one advantage that might help them buck that trend, it’s recruiting. The consistent quality that’s been the hallmark of Smart’s first seven signing classes gives the program its best chance to sustain its place in college football. Smart recognizes this: “We have an unbelievable footprint with which we get to recruit,” he explained. The talent within a 5-hour radius of Athens, augmented by a national reach, has fueled unprecedented success on the recruiting trail. That success allows Georgia to have a reasonable shot at staying close to the top even while losing a record 15 players to the NFL Draft.

To get a rough idea of how Georgia’s recruiting has stacked up against the past ten national champions, let’s look at the Rivals class rankings for the teams that attempted to defend those titles. This is the four-year average (including the incoming class following the title) that should make up the bulk of players on those teams that tried to repeat. Admittedly, this is an extremely crude method and doesn’t account for transfers, redshirts, or early draft entrants – we’re just trying to make a generalization.

2011: Alabama (#1 2009 – #5 2010 – #1 2011 – #1 2012) Avg: 2
2012: Alabama (#5 2010 – #1 2011 – #1 2012 – #1 2013) Avg: 2
2013: Florida State (#2 2011 – #6 2012 – #10 2013 – #4 2014) Avg: 5.5
2014: Ohio State (#4 2012 – #2 2013 – #3 2014 – #9 2015) Avg: 4.5
2015: Alabama (#1 2013 – #1 2014 – #2 2015 – #1 2016) Avg: 1.25
2016: Clemson (#13 2014 – #4 2015 – #6 2016 – #22 2017) Avg: 11.25
2017: Alabama (#2 2015 – #1 2016 – #1 2017 – #7 2018) Avg: 2.75
2018: Clemson (#6 2016 – #22 2017 – #8 2018 – #9 2019) Avg: 11.25
2019: LSU (#8 2017 – #14 2018 – #3 2019 – #4 2020) Avg: 7.25
2020: Alabama (#7 2018 – #2 2019 – #3 2020 – #1 2021) Avg: 3.25
2021: Georgia (#1 2019 – #1 2020 – #5 2021 – #3 2022) Avg: 2.5

You see why you have to exclude Alabama from any analysis. But it seems as if Georgia finds itself in as good of a position talent-wise following their title as any program not named Alabama. This recruiting edge helps to explain Smart’s confidence that Georgia is a program built to be sustained, and it’s the source of the hope that Georgia might be able to avoid the hangover about which Connelly cautioned.

(Since we have the numbers, a few more thoughts…)

  • Since 2011, only one program has signed the #1 class after winning the national title: Alabama. They’ve done it four times. That’s a good way to make sure you’re back year after year after year after…
  • The average non-Alabama signing class following a title ranks only about eighth. Even removing Clemson’s #22 class in 2017, the average is around sixth. A title doesn’t mean a guaranteed top-five class is on the way. Georgia’s #3 class in 2021 is the highest-rated class of any non-Alabama defending champion.
  • Trevor Lawrence and an ACC schedule can take you a long way.
  • Is it fair to ask whether the post-Heisman hangover is a bigger problem for most programs than the post-title hangover?

Post What the rest of the SEC is getting in Oklahoma and Texas

Tuesday July 5, 2022

The 2022 College World Series wrapped up last month marking the end of the 2021-2022 college sports season. Ole Miss claimed the program’s first baseball national title, and the odds were in favor of an SEC squad hoisting the trophy. SEC teams claimed four of the eight slots in Omaha – even with top-seeded Tennessee knocked out in the Super Regionals. Two of the remaining four slots were earned by programs due to join the SEC in just a couple of years: Texas and Oklahoma. Their advancement to the CWS comes just a couple of weeks after Oklahoma and Texas met in Oklahoma City for the NCAA softball title. Football naturally dominates the conference expansion conversation, but short of adding Stanford you won’t find many prospective new conference members with the dominant flagship programs of Oklahoma or the overall success of Texas.

The Longhorn and Sooner brands extend well beyond the gridiron, and they will immediately become SEC contenders in several men’s and women’s sports. SEC programs used to competing for conference titles year in and year out might soon face fresh challenges to the current balance of power. Texas took home the Directors’ Cup in 2021 knocking off perennial winner Stanford in the all-sports competition, and they repeated in 2022. Oklahoma was 24th in the 2021 Directors’ Cup standings, and they make up for a lack of depth across the board with a handful of true powerhouse programs. It’s not enough that these bitter rivals face off annually for conference titles; in 2022 they met twice with a national title on the line.

This is what we might expect when we see these new SEC members on the schedules of our other sports:

Baseball: The Longhorns have a baseball tradition second to none even among SEC programs. Texas has six national titles, reached the national semifinals in 2021, and advanced to Omaha again in 2022. Oklahoma has a respectable program of their own. The Sooners have two national titles and 11 CWS appearances including a trip to the CWS finals in 2022. The SEC tournament soon could just about rival the action in Omaha. But will an even more demanding tournament in Hoover hurt the chances of SEC clubs in the national tournament? SEC softball uses a single-elimination format. Will the men soon do likewise?

Basketball (men’s): Georgia fans will appreciate Oklahoma’s legacy of great players including Mookie Blaylock and Trae Young, but their history goes far beyond that. The Sooners have played in five Final Fours, most recently in 2016. Texas hoops has always been the story of untapped potential. Rick Barnes, now at Tennessee, led the Longhorns to their only Final Four since the 1940s. Shaka Smart won the program’s first Big 12 tournament title in 2021, but it wasn’t enough to overcome an inconsistent couple of years. Texas replaced Smart with successful Texas Tech coach Chris Beard after the 2021 season, and he led the program to its first NCAA Tournament win since 2014. Beard will benefit from improved recruiting under Smart and should be able to stand out among a muddled SEC picture. Kansas’s domination of the Big 12 has kept both programs without a conference regular season title since the 2000s – will they fare better in the SEC?

Basketball (women’s): Oklahoma fielded an elite WBB program in the 2000s and reached three Final Fours. Though still a competitive program and usually an NCAA tournament participant, they’ve slid back over the past decade and are now going through a coaching transition. They won’t upset the order in the SEC right away, but history says they can be a successful program. Texas, like Georgia, was one of the early powers in women’s basketball. The legendary Jody Conradt kept the program at a high level through the turn of the century. Since then they’ve spent lavishly on high-profile coaches and lured Vic Schaefer from Mississippi State after his successful run in Starkville. Texas produced the #1 pick in the WNBA draft in 2021 and seems to be on the upswing with two straight Elite Eight appearances. Schaefer just can’t get away: in the SEC he’ll face his Baylor nemesis Kim Mulkey, now coaching at LSU, and Schaefer’s battles at Mississippi State with South Carolina’s Dawn Staley defined the last decade of SEC women’s basketball.

Golf: Texas has an extremely rich legacy in men’s golf. Legends like Tom Kite, Ben Crenshaw, and Justin Leonard came through Austin. The Longhorns added to that tradition with another national title in 2022. Oklahoma also has a strong history with 18 conference titles and a pair of national championships to their credit. Sooner head coach Ryan Hybl should be a familiar name: he played at Georgia in the early 2000s and was an assistant coach for the Bulldogs until taking over at Oklahoma. (He’s also the brother of former Georgia and Oklahoma quarterback Nate Hybl.) The Oklahoma women had a strong run from 2012-2014 with a pair of conference titles but haven’t been a factor since. The Texas women have had more success on the links with frequent trips to the NCAA championship and a Big 12 title in 2022.

Gymnastics (women’s): Oklahoma women’s gymnastics will be right at home in the SEC: they’ve been the sport’s elite team recently with five of the last eight national titles and two national runner-up finishes. They’ll join LSU and Florida as SEC conference and national title contenders and make it even more difficult for historical powers like Georgia and Alabama to climb back to the top. Surprisingly, Texas does not compete in gymnastics despite strong developmental programs in the state and great gymnasts like Simone Biles who hail from Texas. (Nor does Texas A&M have a gymnastics program!) Perhaps the expansion will encourage both Texas schools to invest in the sport.

Softball: Nothing like adding the best team in the nation! Oklahoma steamrolled their way to the 2021 and 2022 WCWS titles with the nation’s best offense. They’ve won six national titles and four since 2016. The team Oklahoma beat to win the 2022 national title? Texas, of course. Texas has had to play second fiddle to the Sooners in the Big 12, but they’re no slouch. The Longhorns have six WCWS appearances and advanced to the championship series in 2022. SEC softball has shifted the national balance of power in the sport over the past 20 years, and Alabama and Florida brought home national titles.

Swimming / diving: The Longhorns have another juggernaut in the pool. The Texas men have won an NCAA-leading 15 national titles and have five in the past eight years with the most recent in 2021. The Texas women have won ten straight Big 12 titles but haven’t brought home the national crown since 1991. Oklahoma does not field a swimming and diving program.

Tennis: The SEC welcomes another recent multiple national champion: the Texas women took the 2021 and 2022 national titles. The Longhorn men reached the Final Four in 2021 and the Round of 16 in 2022. Oklahoma hasn’t been as successful on the courts recently, but their men made three straight national title match appearances from 2014-2016. The Oklahoma women broke through in 2022 with their first national championship appearance but fell, of course, to Texas.

Track: The Longhorns have yet another national power in track and field. Both men’s and women’s programs finished second in the 2022 NCAA outdoor championships and swept the Big 12 titles. The Texas women’s program has had slightly more success with several national titles, but the men are frequently competitive on the national level. Oklahoma has an above-average Big 12 program but has never finished first or second nationally.

Volleyball: Texas volleyball brings even more multiple national titles to the SEC. Their last title was in 2012, but they have reached the national championship match three times since. They’re the dominant program in the Big 12 with five straight conference titles. Oklahoma has been a consistent NCAA tournament participant over the past decade. but the program has never advanced beyond the Round of 16.

Other sports: Oklahoma and Texas compete in a handful of sports that don’t have SEC championships. Both schools have varsity rowing teams. Oklahoma adds wrestling and men’s gymnastics. As impressive as the Sooner women’s gymnastics team is, Oklahoma has perhaps the nation’s top men’s gymnastics program. Neither the Big 12 nor the SEC competes in men’s gymnastics, so the Sooners compete in the MPSF frankenconference. They’ll likely continue to do so.


Post Historic draft follows historic season

Monday May 2, 2022

Sometimes a tweet is worth a thousand words:

Safe to say the 2022 NFL Draft was an enjoyable one for Georgia fans, the program, and the record-setting 15 Bulldogs who earned a selection. About the only record Georgia didn’t set was for the most first round picks, so there’s a goal for the future. Keep chopping!

Both sides of the ball

There’s one draft footnote I wanted to highlight: as much as the draft (and the 2021 season itself) was about the Georgia defense, the offense also had a banner day. The six players drafted from Georgia’s offense matches the program record established in 2020 and 1977. No, the offense didn’t have the superstar Heisman finalist and surefire first round pick, but none of the six picks was a reach. Pickens, Cook, White, and Salyer were obvious selections. Shaffer was a multi-year starter who could have gone pro a year ago. FitzPatrick is a dependable blocker with pass-catching ability who should fit in well with a run-focused pro scheme. Six Bulldogs drafted from one side of the ball would be a lead story in most years, but this wasn’t just any draft. The 2021 Bulldog offense was talented, productive, among the nation’s best, and overshadowed by the defense. No reason the draft should be any different.

Sticking it out

Every transfer or early exit has his reasons. Travon Walker thought he was ready to go, and the Jaguars agreed. Jermaine Johnson saw a transfer as his path to more playing time and the first round, and he looks to have made a fruitful decision. Others have family pressures, and there is no right or wrong decision without understanding the context. It’s rarely an easy or cut-and-dried decision though. This draft can’t hurt Kirby Smart’s argument for those who might be on the fence about staying or going.

Three of Georgia’s first round picks were seniors who chose to come back: Jordan Davis, Quay Walker, and Devonte Wyatt. All three likely would have been drafted as juniors, but they all made a lot of money by choosing to return. Hopefully Nolan Smith will experience a similar payoff next year.

The concept of perseverance is all over this draft. Tindall and Walker showed that it’s possible to be a high round pick while competing for a starting position. FitzPatrick toiled in the shadow of Bowers, Washington, and even Gilbert but did his job well enough to be noticed. White and Cook, like Michel and Chubb before them, showed you can share the load in a deep stable of backs and still stand out. Cook’s story goes further: for several frustrating seasons he struggled to find a consistent role, and a transfer to a “better” system might have made sense. He thrived under Todd Monken and finally developed into the kind of dangerous, versatile back that NFL teams covet.

As Blutarsky and others have pointed out, NIL will help to make these decisions easier for some players. Financial concerns can easily lead to short-term or suboptimal decisions from a position of desperation. With NIL those burdens can be eased, and the calculation to come back and develop for an additional year can benefit from a longer-term outlook. That help still might not be enough for some who have larger and more immediate financial needs, and that’s understandable if unfortunate. That point aside, we’re already seeing some high-profile and draftable college athletes return to school with the assurance of NIL income and the ability to work towards a higher draft position.

Everything zen

At least for me, the national title makes it much easier to take a relaxed outlook on the immediate future of the program and just enjoy what’s going on during perhaps the most successful run in program history. Georgia is replacing several assistant coaches and staffers and 15 draft picks. Of course it won’t be easy or even possible to fill those voids. At the same time, we won’t be relying on those replacements to finally break the title drought.

It’s not hard to imagine that my reaction to the draft would be much, much different had Georgia not won the national title. It was tough to think about moving on from the missed opportunity of 2017 without Roquan Smith, Sony Michel, and Nick Chubb. I can’t begin to think how despondent the Georgia fan base would be right now seeing a record-setting draft class come through the program without any hardware to show for it. We had become accustomed to waves of talent moving through the program every five years or so, coming close, and starting over. Kirby Smart has broken that cycle. It starts with recruiting – the talent pipeline remains full, and Georgia will have a large number of, if not as many, draft picks again next year. The 2022 team will still be extremely talented on both sides of the ball.

It goes beyond just recruiting though. The program is built from the top down to be sustainable. Smart has ensured that the resources, facilities, and organizational structure are in place to maximize that talent. That alone doesn’t guarantee continued success; it has to be earned over and over. Georgia will be everyone’s target, and Smart won’t allow this year’s team or its stars to coast on their 2021 accomplishments. After the 2021 season, the national title, and a record-setting draft, it’s just a lot easier to have confidence that things are in good hands.

Georgia’s 2022 NFL Draft Picks

Travon Walker (1st overall – Jacksonville)
Jordan Davis (1st – Philadelphia)
Quay Walker (1st – Green Bay)
Devonte Wyatt (1st – Green Bay)
Lewis Cine (1st – Minnesota)
George Pickens (2nd – Pittsburgh)
James Cook (2nd – Buffalo)
Nakobe Dean (3rd – Philadelphia)
Channing Tindall (3rd – Miami)
Zamir White (4th – Las Vegas)
Jake Camarda (4th – Tampa Bay)
Justin Shaffer (6th – Atlanta)
Jamaree Salyer (6th – LA Chargers)
Derion Kendrick (6th – LA Rams)
John FitzPatrick (6th – Atlanta)


Post Preparing for an elite draft weekend

Thursday April 28, 2022

A year ago I watched the Alabama-Ohio State title game and came away wondering what Alabama and other recent champs had that Georgia didn’t. Georgia’s recruiting for several years had been on par with or better than championship teams. Georgia had caught up in the facilities race, and there was no resource that the program lacked. As LSU produced a Heisman-winning quarterback and Alabama a Heisman-winning receiver, I kept coming back to this question: how do you get peak performance from your best players? How do you turn good talent – which Georgia had in spades – into the best players in the nation who will lead you to a national title?

Similar questions helped to frame the 2021 season. Did Georgia finally have its elite quarterback in J.T. Daniels? Could the offense perform at a high level without George Pickens? Was Todd Monken’s system going to deliver the evolution that propelled Alabama and LSU to their recent success? Kirby Smart made the point more abstract and blunt with a phrase most of us could recite by heart now: “you’re either elite or you’re not.”

The mistake I and others made was thinking about these questions only in the context of offense. It’s been beat into the heads of Georgia fans for the past five years or so that its approach on offense was holding the program back. If Georgia wanted the success and titles enjoyed by Clemson, LSU, and Alabama, they’d need to find their Lawrence, Burrow, or Tagovailoa – not to mention the fleet of future NFL receivers on the other end of those passes. They’d need an offensive system willing to turn the passing game loose.

Defense, after all, had done all it could do. Georgia’s defense was rated #1 by ESPN’s SP+ metric after both the 2019 and 2020 seasons. If the top-rated defense couldn’t do much to slow down the 2019 LSU offense or the 2020 Alabama offense, it was clear that a stout defense wasn’t the key to reaching the top. Georgia’s imperative would continue to be the transformation of the offense into something comparable to those other recent champions.

I hadn’t really considered that we could see a defense dominate the way recent offenses had. Georgia’s had wonderful defenders from Azeez Ojulari to Roquan Smith, but even that didn’t prepare us for entire dominant defensive line and linebacker groups. These units were to the Georgia defense what the LSU and Alabama passing games were in 2019 and 2020: difference-makers not only in September and October but against the best teams on the schedule. Yes, they were top-rated by SP+ again, but that can’t quite capture what it was like to watch Jordan Davis track down a player from behind, watch Travon Walker drop back into pass coverage, or see Channing Tindall fly in to make a tackle like a missile. The defense, which only had one representative on the preseason All-SEC first or second teams, were talked about it ways we’d only seen used to describe offenses in recent years.

While we were focused on the quarterback and offensive scheme, Georgia’s defense became the elite unit that the program needed to put it over the top and claim a national title. ***

Of course within an elite unit there are elite individuals. Georgia got peak performance from several defenders and made names like Jordan Davis and Nakobe Dean as recognizable as some Heisman finalists. “Elite” is a squishy superlative, and it’s not quite right to apply that label to just anyone who happens to have contributed to a national title. We can use stats or awards to attempt to make “elite” more objective, and maybe the NFL Draft is as good of a tool as any. There are draft misses all the time, but at least we have teams willing to put money on their evaluations. Georgia is in the middle of its best run of draft picks in program history, and that speaks to recruiting and the rising talent level in the program.

But even within the draft there are tiers. I wrote after last year’s draft that “the next step for Georgia is to have more of its players called even earlier in the draft and especially in the first round.” Again, there are first round busts every year, but on the whole these are the prospects judged most worthy of the NFL’s largest investments. LSU had five first round picks after their national title in 2019, and Alabama’s 2020 championship team produced six first-round picks. Georgia’s program-best three first round picks came after the near miss in 2017.

That next step is likely to happen this weekend. Georgia’s defenders are expected to come off the board early and often – perhaps as soon as the top overall pick. They might not match the first round totals of LSU or Alabama, but Georgia should still have heavy representation across the lucrative first three rounds. It won’t just be the defenders in the spotlight – offensive standouts like George Pickens, Jamaree Salyer, and James Cook will hear their names called.

After seven rounds we could see a record number of Bulldogs drafted. More importantly we could see records fall for Georgia players selected in the first three rounds. Georgia had twice as many early round picks (6) in 2021 as they had in 2020 (3), and there should be even more in 2022. As more Bulldogs move into the elite draft positions, it will be recognition certainly of their individual hard work but also of Kirby Smart’s recruiting and talent development. The top-rated classes that have enrolled since 2018 made the most of their college careers and are now among the top-rated draft prospects.

To bring it full-circle, perhaps the most gratifying development of the 2021 season for me was seeing a large number of Georgia players become the difference-makers that we had coveted in other recent champions. The national title was a by-product of those performances, and having that accomplishment in hand makes it much easier and more enjoyable to send these individuals off to the next level without the familiar pains of asking what might have been. Now it’s time for them to receive their individual recognition and reward at the sport’s highest level.

(*** – The defense’s special season shouldn’t be seen as a rejection of the need for change on offense. Georgia’s offense might have been overshadowed by the defense, but it still topped out as the nation’s #3-rated offense by SP+. Todd Monken stayed true to Georgia’s advantages in the ground game, but the passing attack wasn’t ignored. Monken found ways to use the versatility of James Cook and Kenny McIntosh, featured a new and unique threat in Brock Bowers, and put Stetson Bennett in positions to succeed and make the most of what Bennett brought to the position. The offense pulled its weight without the presumed starters at receiver and quarterback and the two players most would have considered key to the offense taking a step forward. If the defense takes a step back from superhuman to pretty damn good, I expect that the focus will shift somewhat back to offensive production. Fortunately Georgia is well-positioned to continue its evolution on that side of the ball.)


Post Georgia women’s basketball reboots for the first time in 40 years

Friday April 8, 2022

When Joni Taylor took over the Georgia women’s basketball program in 2015, the implied message was one of continuity. Of course Taylor went right to work putting her own mark on the program. Even as the lead assistant you’re not the one with the ultimate authority in a program’s operation. But the people and approach remained comfortably familiar. Two of the four coaches from Andy Landers’ final staff, including Taylor, remained with the program. The roster was largely unchanged and only had the usual attrition from graduation. The program’s daily operations weren’t interrupted or restructured. Then-deputy athletic director Carla Williams explained, “the program’s not broken.” Taylor had the cultural fit, was a favorite of fans and basketball alumni, and had the endorsement of Landers. It’s possible, without discounting the personal touches Taylor brought, to consider her seven years as an extension of what came before it.

With last week’s introduction of Katie Abrahamson-Henderson as Georgia’s next coach, nearly 40 years of continuity in Georgia basketball has ended. Yes, Coach Abe began her playing career at Georgia over 30 years ago and so understands its history and tradition, but that’s the extent of the connection. As a coach she is relatively unknown to Georgia fans. Her last four rosters at UCF have had one player from the state of Georgia. She will bring in her own assistants, and they have less coaching or playing experience in Georgia than Coach Abe. Only a few administrative staffers might remain to bridge the transition. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if you believe that the program needed a fresh approach in order to take the next step. But it does hint at the amount of work ahead of the new staff if the program is to reach a third straight NCAA tournament.

These are just some of the challenges awaiting Abrahamson-Henderson as she gets down to work:

The competitive landscape

When you take a job in the SEC, you know what you’re getting into. Women’s basketball is taking on a higher profile. There are national TV broadcasts, and the best players and coaches are building recognizable and effective personal brands through the college game. The SEC is leading the way, and the competitive energy required to keep up is intense. The conference has been active since Georgia last hired a coach: 9 of the 14 schools have changed head coaches in the meantime. High-profile hires have driven up the cost of doing business, and staff salary pools have had to keep pace. Increased media coverage means that nearly every game is broadcast and scrutinized. Nearly everyone is trying to get better and investing more in their program. Georgia must decide if it wants to ride this wave, and Coach Abe will have to hold the school accountable for its commitment to the program.

South Carolina has a stranglehold on top of the SEC, but the rest of the league has proven fairly transient as coaching changes took root. Kim Mulkey was able to elevate LSU from the middle of the pack to a second place finish in 2022. Mississippi State went in the other direction – from national title game appearances in 2017 and 2018 to out of the NCAA tournament in 2022. Texas A&M won the regular season title in 2021 but dropped into the bottom third of the league this season. New coaches at Ole Miss and Florida breathed new life into programs trapped in the conference cellar. That’s encouraging in one sense. The ceiling for the best SEC teams is the national title. On the other hand, it’s unsettling: it doesn’t take long to be passed by after a couple of sub-par recruiting classes, a rash of injuries, or an ineffective hire.

Another direct competitor Georgia fans might overlook is Georgia Tech. The series historically dominated by Georgia has taken a sharp turn towards parity. Tech rebuilt their program with foreign talent mixed with quality prospects from across the south. Georgia’s inability to lock down the state in recruiting (more on that below) aided this effort and has made Tech a thorn in Georgia’s side. In fact, Joni Taylor had a losing record (3-4) against the Yellow Jackets, and Georgia has dropped 3 of the last 4. Retaking control of this rivalry that was once an afterthought would be small but visible progress that any Georgia fan can appreciate.

Any discussion of college sports these days has to acknowledge the transfer portal. Georgia has been a popular transfer destination with standouts like Taja Cole, Mikayla Coombs, and Jenna Staiti joining the program. This coaching change might make the portal a little less popular among Georgia fans. The Lady Dogs have already seen a couple of players and prospects signal their intent to explore a transfer. The 2023 team was already going to be thin in a couple of spots before any attrition, so Abrahamson-Henderson will likely need to be active herself in the transfer market. Attracting transfers could have a lot to do with her success out of the gate before her more traditional recruiting operation kicks into gear. Speaking of recruiting…

Recruiting

As Georgia’s associate head coach from 2012-2015, Joni Taylor was already heavily involved with recruiting. That experience didn’t immediately pay off once she became head coach and revamped Georgia’s recruiting in the era of social media. Her first impactful infusion of talent came in 2017 with the nation’s #9 class that included recent stars like Que Morrison and Gabby Connally. Another top 20 class followed in 2019, but Georgia didn’t string together consecutive top 20 classes until 2021 and 2022. Georgia’s brand is national; the strong 2017 class featured three out-of-state players, and 5* prospects like Chloe Chapman (Maryland) and Reigan Richardson (North Carolina) have been added since. The bigger problems left for Abrahamson-Henderson to solve are consistency from year-to-year avoiding unbalanced classes and improving recruiting results right here at home.

It’s not news that the state of Georgia produces as much women’s basketball talent as it does for other sports. Recruiters flock to the state, and competition is fierce. Peach State talent is spread across the SEC. Only four SEC teams didn’t have a Georgia native on their roster last season, and more than half of the SEC had a Georgia native start a game. In 2019, 12 of 14 SEC teams had a player from Georgia. Both of this year’s national title game participants started a Georgian.

We often hear about Georgia’s difficulty recruiting in-state with men’s basketball. But many of those same issues have plagued the women’s program over the past 10-15 years. Georgia can always count on signing homegrown players, but it’s been tough to convince the state’s very best to stay home. Top prospects from Georgia have signed with schools as disparate as Stanford, Maryland, Duke, and UConn. Georgia signed the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year in 2004 and 2005. Since 2005 only two others – Anne Marie Armstrong and Sydney Bowles – have signed with Georgia out of high school. (Georgia will hope that Bowles remains committed through the coaching transition.) Two others, Staiti and Coombs, signed elsewhere before transferring to Georgia. Georgia’s slide from national and even SEC contender status has gone along with this struggle to attract the state’s best players to Athens.

The ascendency of South Carolina has only made the job more challenging. Before Bowles the previous two Georgia Gatorade Players of the Year inked with Dawn Staley. To buck that trend, a Georgia coach needs her version of A’ja Wilson: the elite player who could have signed anywhere and showed faith in the local program. Georgia began to show signs of progress in state with commitments over the past two years from Jillian Hollingshead, Janiah Barker, and Sydney Bowles. It remains to be seen whether those individual signings hold up through the transition, but the larger point is that Georgia was making some headway where it needed to. Abrahamson-Henderson and her staff won’t be starting completely from scratch, but establishing their own in-state connections and recruiting network must be a priority. Hopefully it won’t take 5+ years to do so.

Attendance

Forget the lazy excuse that Georgia fans just won’t support basketball. Tom Crean’s program set consecutive attendance records in 2019 and 2020 without a quality product on the court. That rising tide never lifted women’s basketball attendance, but that’s not to say that the program has never been a big draw. The top 10 women’s basketball crowds at Georgia, including five sell-outs, all occurred more than 10 years ago.

Attendance under Taylor grew modestly from just under 3,000 per game in 2017 to a high of 3,830 per game in 2019. It slid a bit in 2020 to 3,411 during a sub-par couple of years and of course took a nose-dive in the pandemic season of 2021. Fans cautiously made their way back to Stegeman in 2022 with an average of 2,861 per game. The season’s attendance high naturally came against South Carolina with 5,461 fans of both schools turning out. The Tennessee game drew 5,117 fans.

It might seem a little premature to talk about filling the seats before the program returns to the Sweet 16 and beyond. But the one thing that Crean got right is that fans can be a part of the rebuild. It’s easier to recruit if prospects can imagine themselves playing in front of large and energetic crowds. Networks want to put not only successful programs but bigtime environments in their best time slots. Those programs driving the growth of the sport are bringing in fans who might not have even considered women’s basketball 10 years ago. Attendance can’t be an afterthought that must wait until everything else falls into place.

There’s been a core group of fans that found the program during better years, but as they’ve aged and reduced in number there hasn’t really been a large inflow of new fans to replace them. Last season the school introduced an Enhancement Fund for women’s basketball comparable to funds used for other sports. Season tickets were tied to this new fund, essentially doubling the price of season tickets for the most loyal fans. That’s life in modern college athletics, but it also made the job of courting new seasons ticket holders that much more difficult.

This coaching transition is as good of a time as any to reevaluate how Georgia markets women’s basketball. What are some actions that might help Abrahamson-Henderson draw larger crowds to Stegeman Coliseum?

  • Win. Duh. The simplest way for Abrahamson-Henderson to grow the Georgia fan base will be to produce a consistent winner. Of course that’s the goal of any coach, but it works and is what built Georgia’s foundational fan base.
  • Play a compelling style of basketball. Georgia’s calling card over the past decade has been solid defense leading to more wins than losses, but often even the wins were as fun as a trip to the dentist. Coaches will tell you wins are wins, and purists can appreciate defensive battles. Unless you have the defense of the 2021 Georgia football team, low-scoring defensive grinds can be a tough sell. Abrahamson-Henderson pointed out the importance of a lock-down defense to the national title contenders and makes that a focus of her coaching, but she also promised an aggressive, up-tempo energy that should be entertaining.
  • Shamelessly self-promote. How did Georgia gymnastics become and remain Stegeman Coliseum’s top draw? How did Tom Crean set attendance records during some miserable seasons? They asked for it. Constantly. Suzanne Yoculan was a natural salesperson who made her meets must-see events as the program became the nation’s best. Crean hit the road during his first off-season energizing fans and student groups. Attendance was already on the way up when Anthony Edwards arrived, and that sent attendance to another record high.
  • Make growing the fan base a priority of the athletic department. Self-promotion can get you so far, but the effect can be multiplied by leveraging Georgia’s extensive resources. Cross-promote with other sports and season ticket holders – and that means more than waving to the crowd during a football timeout. Support and resources from the athletic department will be important in many areas; marketing is only one of them.
  • Develop and market star players – and build around them. Elite players will draw curious fans. Georgia hasn’t had a WNBA first-round pick since 2008. Jenna Staiti was only the second first-team All-SEC selection since 2016. Of course Georgia has had plenty of good players over those spans, but the program has struggled to produce the household names that fans will tune in to watch and buy tickets to see in person.
  • Engage students. There’s no question that the fan base trends older. Women’s basketball games are also popular with families and especially families with young daughters. It’s an inexpensive family entertainment option. It’s even less-expensive (free!) for Georgia students to attend, but that’s been a tougher group to reach. There have been giveaways and other promotions, but the bigger challenge is making women’s basketball games social events where friend groups want to congregate.

The almost-daily frenzy of news following Taylor’s departure will die down soon, but Coach Abe will be a whirlwind of activity over the next six months before preseason practice begins. Among other things she’ll have to evaluate Georgia’s returning players, get what she can out of the spring recruiting period and transfer portal, set up her own recruiting operation to catch up on the 2023 class and beyond, establish her offseason program, hold summer camps, and provide input on everything from her new office to next season’s schedule. It helps that she’ll have a familiar set of assistants who can anticipate her expectations and preferences, but they’ll also be making their own adjustments. It also helps that she’s done this before with great success. Whether that experience can translate to the SEC is the big question, and we’ll begin to see around October what this new era of Georgia women’s basketball will look like.


Post Monken’s greatest hits

Thursday April 7, 2022

Blutarsky posted what he considers his favorite Todd Monken play calls from the past two seasons. They’re great. The entire Michigan gameplan was a work of art.

Thinking about my favorite Monken plays I keep coming back to this one from the 2021 UAB game:

1st & 10 at UGA 11
(1:14 – 1st) Stetson Bennett pass complete to Brock Bowers for 89 yds for a TD, (Jack Podlesny KICK)

Here’s another look at it. The play is technically 11 personnel, but the tight end is split out to give a 4-wide look. The TE motions inside the receiver. While the receiver runs a post route to clear out the safety, the TE runs a wheel route to go back outside. A fake toss to the tailback on the play side draws in the linebackers and causes the defensive back covering Bowers to hesitate. With no safety help over the top, Bowers slips by the defensive back and gets behind the defense with a clear path to the endzone.

This is why it’s among my favorites:

  • Brock Bowers scores his first touchdown. We’d heard the buzz about him during spring ball and watched him at G-Day, but at the start of the season the bigger question was how Georgia would cope with Darnell Washington’s injury. Bowers scored twice against UAB and began to emerge as a key part of Georgia’s offense, and this play showed it all – his versatility to line up anywhere, his route-running, his hands, and of course his speed.
  • Years of preseason chatter about using the tight ends had become a running gag among Georgia fans. This is the year – we mean it this time! A big play from a tight end wheel route was pure catnip to these fans. Little did they know that this freshman tight end would be Georgia’s leading receiver on a national champion team.
  • What distinguishes the play isn’t just Bowers scoring. It’s the play itself offering multiple options to put the defense in a bind. Later in the game Monken came back to the same play flipped to the other side. Carson Beck fakes the tailback pitch and draws in a safety. This time the tight end, Seither, is covered on the wheel route. The other safety is held just long enough by a dig route coming across the middle. Justin Robinson settled into the vacated opening, and Beck found him for the easy score.

Yes – most plays from even the most pedestrian play callers have options and levels. Monken didn’t invent this stuff. It was still thoroughly enjoyable to see a play that 1) was well-designed, 2) was well-executed, and 3) made use of the skills of a talented playmaker to create an explosive scoring play. It was even more enjoyable to see the same concept score again with an entirely different set of personnel later in the same game.


Post Athens is getting a new arena?

Thursday March 24, 2022

A reader asks in Seth Emerson’s latest mailbag:

I wonder why UGA wouldn’t look to partner with the city for a new state-of-the-art arena that could house basketball and concerts?

Seth’s reply notes that Columbia, SC had good success doing just that, but Columbia is a larger city and state capitol. Further, “UGA likes the location of Stegeman, the middle of campus where students and fans alike can get there.” But, Emerson concludes, “if they were able to create some space in that (downtown) area it would help the long-term facilities plan” and free up some scarce land around the athletics complex.

It turns out that Athens is building a new downtown arena, but the University of Georgia’s varsity athletic teams won’t figure into those plans. This project has flown so far under the radar that Emerson didn’t seem aware of it in his response. I only stumbled across an article last week about its groundbreaking ceremony. The Classic Center Arena “is envisioned to provide a 5,500-seat public assembly facility/arena space” connected to both the Classic Center complex and the downtown multimodal transit facility. Groundbreaking is scheduled for Thursday April 28th, and equipment is already moving into place.

The arena, scheduled to open in 2023, will have 5,500 permanent seats “with the capacity to hold up to 8,000 people along with the ability to transform for any occasion from concerts and sports tournaments to banquets and general sessions.” Its ice rink will provide a larger space for Georgia’s club hockey team, and the Classic Center has signed an agreement to bring in a professional East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) team. It sounds like a nice little multi-use mid-sized event space for the Athens and northeast Georgia area. You can see plans and a virtual walkthrough here.

Was this a missed opportunity? I and Emerson’s correspondent asked whether the city and university ever considered a joint project. Emerson mentioned South Carolina’s facility. Rupp Arena is another example, anchoring the downtown Lexington hotel and convention center. Athens wouldn’t have needed to consider something at the scale of those two arenas – just a modest increase in capacity would bring the arena into line with new arenas at Ole Miss (9,500), Auburn (9,121), and a planned arena at Alabama (10,136). Athletic department funds could help increase the capacity and provide the finishing touches taking it from a nice small-town civic center to a modern collegiate arena. The Athens downtown is practically adjacent to the UGA campus, so an “off-campus” arena at the Classic Center isn’t really a problem for student access.

That ship seems to have sailed now – designs are finalized and earth will begin moving in about a month. Athens will have its own arena that can host high school sports tournaments, all but the largest concerts, and other events that can draw several thousand people. It won’t necessarily compete against Athens’ smaller music venues, but it might help to draw a wider variety of entertainment options to the area. Stegeman Coliseum was never really in this market aside from the occasional Homecoming concert or high school basketball championship. For now it will continue on as Georgia’s home for volleyball, gymnastics, and basketball fresh off an $8 million 2017 renovation.

The future of Stegeman Coliseum has been debated by Georgia fans for decades, and incremental renovations have transformed the building into a serviceable SEC facility. It might have reached its limit after the latest round of improvements. The location of a new arena has always been the sticking point: on-campus or off-campus? An on-campus arena is always the preferred location, and the current site is really the only viable on-campus space. But then what to do during the two years or so during construction? Georgia Tech played in Duluth while its arena was rebuilt in place ten years ago. That’s an option for Georgia, too, but an alternate location within walking distance of campus would be far better. If the Classic Center Arena isn’t going to be the permanent solution, it might at least serve as a temporary home if a decision is made down the road to replace Stegeman Coliseum in-place. Capacity would be a concern even if the 5,500 base capacity can be stretched upwards of 8,000. But that higher number gets you close enough to at least consider the tradeoff of capacity for the convenience of location.

I’m curious to see how this downtown arena comes together and what is possible with local municipal funding. It’s tough to shake the notion that something grander was possible in partnership with the University, but maybe this wasn’t the time or location for anything more ambitious. There certainly would have been many, but certainly not unique or unsolvable, questions of oversight and responsibility for a shared facility. There might have been legal limitations on the use of SPLOST funds. These plans were coming together as Greg McGarity planned his retirement and during the onset of the pandemic. Emerson himself has reminded us several times that Georgia’s athletic department lacked a master facilities plan, so an opportunity to develop a joint solution might have caught Georgia unprepared. Whatever the reasons, Athens will soon have its own small arena, and the University of Georgia will continue in its own 58-year-old on-campus facility.


Post Joni Taylor leaves Georgia with a mixed and unfinished legacy

Wednesday March 23, 2022

Georgia women’s basketball coach Joni Taylor has accepted the head coaching position at Texas A&M. Taylor was 140-75 (62-48 SEC) in seven seasons as Georgia’s head coach, took four teams to the NCAA tournament, and was named SEC Coach of the Year in 2021.

Taylor was a bold choice to follow Hall of Fame coach Andy Landers. Landers won over 800 games in 36 seasons at Georgia. Taylor had an extensive background as an SEC assistant, including several season as Landers’s lead assistant, but had no head coaching experience. The risky move seemed justified as Taylor was named National Rookie Coach of the Year in 2016. The next year Georgia signed a top-10 class featuring four top 100 players. They followed that up in 2018 with a top-16 national seed and finished tied for second place in the SEC.

It’s been an uneasy path forward since. Georgia missed the postseason in 2019 and would have in the 2020 season prematurely ended by the pandemic. The Lady Dogs narrowly avoided the program’s first losing season as an NCAA school, and Georgia had never missed consecutive NCAA tournaments. Georgia bounced back in 2021 as that 2017 recruiting class had its swan song. They finished fourth in the SEC, made the conference tournament finals, and earned a high seed in the NCAA tournament. 2022 was an ever-so-slight step back, but the team still won 20 games and earned a consecutive NCAA tournament bid for the first time in Taylor’s seven seasons.

Taylor is easy to like and even easier to respect, and that’s what makes her departure most hard to take. Taylor identified and built on core traits that she considered fundamental and unique to Georgia. There’s no mistaking that she is the child of two devoted educators: she is principled, driven, and commands attention. She carries herself with a no-nonsense demeanor that leaves no doubt about who is in charge, but she cares deeply about the personal development of the student-athletes she leads. Three of Taylor’s players have been named SEC Scholar Athlete of the Year. She can relate easily with the women on her team. Her “Beyond Basketball” outreach has been groundbreaking and a paradigm of professional and personal development for women. On top of it all, Taylor has started a family since becoming Georgia’s coach. She’s been a model of balancing family and career with a high-profile position in the public eye.

In short, Taylor would be the perfect coach if things went as well on the court.

Success can be relative: had Tom Crean or Mark Fox matched Taylor’s record over the past seven seasons, it would be among the best seven-year periods in Georgia men’s basketball history. Georgia women’s basketball though has a much richer legacy and tradition, and Taylor was quick to acknowledge and embrace that standard. When introduced as Georgia’s coach, she noted that Georgia has the “resources, facilities, and support to do things on a national level.” It’s debatable whether Taylor performed to that standard. Georgia missed as many NCAA tournaments in Taylor’s seven seasons as they had in all prior seasons. 20 of Georgia’s first 31 NCAA tournament teams advanced to the Sweet 16. None of Taylor’s four NCAA tournament teams did, and three times Georgia lost to a lower seed in the first or second round. Only two of Taylor’s seven teams finished higher than 6th in the SEC, and only those two teams advanced to the SEC tournament semifinals.

It’s incorrect and unfair to put the struggle to maintain the program’s standard completely on Taylor. When you begin asking “when was the last time Georgia….” many of the answers fall well before Andy Landers stepped down in 2015. Georgia’s successful 2021 campaign ended with a trip to the SEC tournament finals – a feat not accomplished at Georgia since 2004. The team’s 3-seed in the NCAA tournament was the program’s best since 2007. Georgia hasn’t produced an All-American since Ashley Houts in 2010. The program has produced no first-round WNBA picks since Tasha Humphrey in 2008. Let’s not pretend that Taylor inherited a national power full of All-Americans. Taylor had to address a long slide in recruiting and perception that began as programs like South Carolina and even Georgia Tech were on the rise. It could also be argued that Taylor had something to do with that slide – she was a top assistant coach and responsible for recruiting and player development during several of those seasons.

Are there signs that Taylor was finally starting to make some headway? Seven years can be an eternity to wait for results in college sports, but patience can sometimes pay off. It’s a positive development to reach the NCAA tournament in back-to-back seasons. Recruiting has also picked up. The current freshman class was rated #14 nationally, and the incoming class is rated #7. Those indicators at least are pointing in the right direction. That patience though came with its own problems. Taylor’s teams have never been especially proficient on offense, and there hasn’t been much urgency to change the approach that made it difficult to compete at the highest level. Taylor kept the same staff throughout her entire time at Georgia – a stability that seemed to reinforce her message of family but which also seemed more and more stagnant after seven seasons. The big payoff never really arrived.

It might seem to Taylor like a logical time to make a change. Her most successful recruiting class from 2017 has exhausted its eligibility, though Malury Bates has the option to return. The next wave of talent at Georgia is still young or yet to arrive, and a transition season might be ahead for Georgia. Her children haven’t reached school age yet. She’ll face a familiar situation and standard at Texas A&M. Gary Blair, like Landers, was a longtime successful SEC coach. Blair led A&M to the 2011 national title, the 2021 SEC regular season title, and the Aggies just named their court for him. The local recruiting landscape will be fierce with Baylor, an ascendant Texas program, and Kim Mulkey next door at LSU. Expectations will be high, but these are not new challenges for Taylor after seven seasons leading a program in the SEC.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that “the women’s basketball program might present the most difficult situation for (Josh) Brooks” relative to the other programs that call Stegeman Coliseum home. The men’s basketball program was so far gone that a coaching change was the obvious way forward. Taylor’s program isn’t remotely in that situation, and that was the puzzle for Brooks. It made no sense to replace Taylor, but at the same time the program didn’t seem on the verge of adding to Stegeman Coliseum’s banners. The problem to solve was getting more out of the program under its current leadership and approach. Whether that solution involved a staff shakeup, outside consultants to bring in new ideas, or additional resources, getting incremental improvement from a program that’s already performing relatively well is an extremely difficult task.

In a way, Taylor made it easier for Brooks by leaving. Brooks still has the great responsibility of finding a replacement, but he’s also able to start fresh and work with a new coach on a vision for the program. That’s a tremendous opportunity, but of course any change brings risk. The caution is becoming a program like Alabama, Vanderbilt, or Auburn – once-proud and successful programs that slid into years of losing seasons and cycles of coaching changes that never gained traction. That was always a possibility after Landers retired, and Taylor, to her credit, at least kept things from cratering. Georgia could easily go either way. Attrition and transfers will determine what the new coach has to work with: the foundation of a very good team is in place with the incoming recruiting class, but the talent level isn’t deep enough to survive the loss of those key signings or next season’s likely starters.

There’s no point naming a list of possible candidates since it should be a long and exhaustive list. A program with Georgia’s resources and legacy in women’s basketball should be able to attract some of the top names in the sport. During Taylor’s time at Georgia, the rest of the SEC has not stood still. LSU was able to hire Kim Mulkey away from Baylor. Dawn Staley has fortified her position at South Carolina. Promising hires at Auburn, Ole Miss, and Vanderbilt look to pull those programs out of the cellar. As I noted, Georgia is behind its peers when it comes to spending on basketball, and that impacts everything from the recruiting budget to hiring staff. It might have even had something to do with Taylor’s decision to leave. Brooks’s commitment to support the program with the full backing of the athletic department and its resources will be as important as the identity of the next coach.

Taylor’s charismatic leadership makes it tough for many Georgia fans to see her leave. A reset might be best for both parties though. She’ll be able to start the process again at Texas A&M using the experience she gained at Georgia. The Bulldogs can try to find a head coach more capable of elevating the program to the standard Taylor embraced when she accepted the position.


Post Stegeman’s unchanging banners an opportunity for Josh Brooks

Thursday March 10, 2022

It’s unfair to say that Josh Brooks has had an easy first year as Georgia’s athletic director. He’s already had to appoint three new head coaches under very different circumstances. He’s supervised the ongoing expansion of the Butts-Mehre facility to serve the football program and other sports. He’s listened to fans and made incremental improvements to the fan experience at Georgia sporting events. Brooks has been a busy man and a visible administrator.

It’s also true that Brooks came into the job at perhaps the best possible time. The school’s flagship football program is the best in the nation. Happy fans are buying tickets and merchandise, and the Hartman Fund donation numbers should be a sight to behold this year. Brooks, as befits his role as athletic director, was right there to join in all of the back-slapping and celebrations that went along with the national title. The months since the national title haven’t been as cheerful for Georgia’s winter sports, and Brooks might soon have to transition from posing for pictures with the CFP trophy to less pleasant duties and press conferences.

Stegeman Coliseum’s banners hang from the west end of the arena, and you can’t help but notice them while facing the flag during the performance of the national anthem. As you’d expect, Georgia’s historically strong gymnastics program claims most of the accomplishments (and only national titles) celebrated on those banners. The women’s basketball program adds its five Final Four appearances and eight SEC crowns. We know that championship seasons for men’s basketball have been few and far between, but they too have their place with a Final Four run in 1983 and three SEC titles.

What stands out is that none of the banners have needed an update since 2009. Stegeman’s winter occupants haven’t brought home an SEC title, much less a national title, since the GymDogs sent Suzanne Yoculan into retirement by rallying for another national championship in 2009. The only other schools without SEC titles in basketball or gymnastics since 2009 are Arkansas and Missouri. Are any of these sports close to adding to their banners?

Stegeman Banners

Men’s Basketball

The fate of the 2021-2022 men’s basketball season was sealed last spring. Tom Crean was retained after an unremarkable year. Nine players transferred out. The current roster was cobbled together from a few remaining players, a low-impact signing class, and whatever Georgia could scrape together from the transfer portal. The nature of Crean’s contract buyout essentially placed the program in hospice for a year. There was little doubt how it would end. The only questions were “when will it end?” and “how bad would it get?” We know the answers are “now” and “historically bad.”

Success in men’s basketball has been the white whale of Georgia athletics. Everyone has an idea how to fix things, but they all boil down to recruiting. Almost every year someone points out the Georgia natives enjoying postseason success elsewhere. This year we’ve been reminded weekly how several key members of the 2021 Georgia team have important roles for contenders. Recruiting is more than getting an isolated signature: it’s a sustained process of assembling and retaining a competitive roster year after year. Anthony Edwards was a recruiting coup for Tom Crean, but no one followed. Sahvir Wheeler and KD Johnson were above-average guards who left for better opportunities when a more competitive frontcourt couldn’t be built around them. Just assembling a quality roster and holding it together long enough to build something has been too much to ask.

Because of the transient nature of the 2021-2022 roster, the next men’s basketball coach won’t start out in a good position. There won’t be much of a splash in the spring recruiting period. There will be some typical attrition. Perhaps a handful of contributors from the current squad stick it out through the transition. Georgia will again be reliant on incoming transfers for a good chunk of its roster next season while the new staff gets its recruiting operation into gear. It’s likely to be an ugly, messy situation for a year or two – and that’s the lower limit if the next coach can gain recruiting traction within a year. Will that challenge make Georgia a less-attractive destination for a promising coaching prospect?

Gymnastics

North Carolina women’s soccer. Iowa wrestling. Arkansas track and field. Few schools are fortunate to host a college sports dynasty, and Suzanne Youculan’s ten national titles from 1987-2009 made Georgia gymnastics a national powerhouse. Yoculan went out on top with five straight national titles from 2005-2009 before she retired. Dynasties end, and it’s never easy going replacing a legendary coach. Jay Clark struggled to sustain the program’s success and has had much better results at LSU. Danna Durante managed three Super Six appearances from 2013-2016 but couldn’t bring home titles. With Yoculan’s blessing, Courtney Kupets Carter – one of Georgia’s superstars during the five straight titles in the 2000s – was brought in to recapture Georgia’s former glory and has been at the helm for five seasons.

Unfortunately Kupets Carter hasn’t returned Georgia to the level of the Yoculan era. The program has even slid from Durante’s time. Georgia finished 2021 ranked #18 and will finish the 2022 regular season out of the top 20. Meanwhile, programs like Florida, LSU, and even Auburn have taken steps forward. Top-ranked Oklahoma will be joining the SEC soon.

There is much more sentimental attachment to Kupets Carter than there is to someone like Crean. Kupets Carter is a beloved figure in Georgia sports history and one of its most accomplished athletes. She took over with a hearty endorsement from Suzanne Yoculan. Yoculan even assisted for a season while Kupets-Carter found her stride as head coach. There has been some bad luck with injuries, but the program shows no signs of returning to SEC contender or national Super Six status anytime soon.

Women’s Basketball

The women’s basketball program might present the most difficult situation for Brooks. Joni Taylor took a team to the SEC tournament final in 2021, was named SEC coach of the year, and is headed back to the NCAA tournament for the second straight season. That’s not a floundering program. Yet, due to Dennis Felton’s improbable run to the SEC tournament title in 2008, the women’s basketball program has gone the longest without adding to its Stegeman Coliseum banners. It’s been over 20 years since Kelly Miller’s buzzer-beater gave Georgia the 2001 SEC tournament championship. Georgia got as far as the NCAA Regional Final in 2004 and 2013 but came up just short of the Final Four. They haven’t returned to the Sweet 16 since.

Taylor’s results have been inconsistent over her seven seasons. This year marks just the first time she’s been able to string together consecutive NCAA tournament bids. Georgia has earned two top 16 national seeds in Taylor’s seven seasons, but they’ve been unable to sustain that level of play in the subsequent seasons. Last season’s SEC final appearance fizzled out in the second round of the NCAA tournament. A promising 2022 season that had Georgia approaching the top ten ended in an early-round exit at the SEC tournament. Recruiting seems to be on the upswing: Georgia will welcome the #7 signing class after inking the #14 class a year ago. Getting more out of these signing classes must be a priority.

The trap is complacency. The program has not come close to the futility of the men’s program, but neither has it met the standard Taylor embraced when she took over from Andy Landers. Georgia’s staff has remained unchanged since Taylor took over for the 2015-2016 season. The rest of the SEC has not stood still. Georgia shows signs of stability and even some progress in recruiting, but you also don’t want to plateau as a program that just makes it into the NCAA tournament and struggles to finish in the SEC top four. That was the state of the program when Landers decided it was time to step aside. Taylor’s program might be the closest of the three to adding another title, but are there steps Brooks can take to help Taylor get her program to the next level? How do you send the message that good should be better?

A common thread?

Recently ESPN’s Mark Schlabach went in-depth about the persistent issues with Georgia men’s basketball. The points are familiar ones to UGA basketball fans, but the details about Georgia’s recruiting approach in particular are still bewildering. Schalabach also brings up Georgia’s facilities. The practice facility was state of the art when it opened 15 years ago and is still a strong resource with dedicated practice, training, and locker space for all three programs. Stegeman Coliseum itself received a major facelift just a few years ago with improvements to the seating bowl and concourses. There is only so much that can be done to Stegeman without replacing it completely, and Georgia is close to that limit. A new facility is a separate discussion, but Georgia has invested quite a bit in capital improvements for these sports over the past two decades.

But capital spending is only one type of investment in the programs. The annual budgets provide the resources to operate day-to-day in those facilities. In 2015, Georgia’s football expenses were about $2 million below the SEC median. By 2020 Georgia was spending $7 million more on football than the median SEC school. Kirby Smart led a significant increase in the football support staff, recruiting resources, and other expenses to go along with capital projects like the West Endzone, indoor practice facility, and Butts-Mehre expansion.

Spending has increased on Georgia’s basketball programs, but they still lag relative to their SEC peers. For the reporting year 2020, Georgia spent $8.3 million on men’s basketball. LSU spent $9.3 million, Tennessee spent $13.1 million, South Carolina spent $8.2 million, and Kentucky blew everyone away with $19.1 million in men’s basketball expenses. For women’s basketball, Georgia spent $4.4 million. LSU spent $4.7 million, Kentucky spent $5.3 million, South Carolina spent $6.9 million, and Tennessee spent $7.3 million.

It’s not about the head coach’s salary. Crean earned $3.2 million, making him one of the 20 highest-paid coaches in the nation in 2020. Taylor likewise is paid well relative to the market. As with football, the annual budget allows a program to increase the support staff, have a larger pool of funds with which to attract better assistants, and provide better meals, travel, and other quality-of-life benefits for the players. Of course there’s not a direct relationship between spending and success, but Georgia’s relative thriftiness here isn’t done out of virtue. It’s no surprise though that Kentucky men’s basketball and Tennessee women’s basketball are among the biggest spenders. Kirby Smart made the case for an expansion of the football budget when he took the job. Will the athletic administration be as receptive if a new basketball coach makes a similar case?

The fans are already there

Tom Crean implored fans to pack Stegeman during his first two seasons, and they responded with sellouts in an unmistakable show of faith in the new coach. Georgia basketball was a hot ticket during the Anthony Edwards season even without a winning team on the court. Support has waned as the program failed to live up to its end of the deal. The GymDogs still draw large crowds and sold out a recent meet with Auburn as the large fan base built by Yoculan’s tireless showmanship persists through some lean years. Even women’s basketball drew large crowds during their championship and Final Four seasons. Georgia is indeed a football school, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a large number of Georgia fans who would like to see more from the winter sports and who are willing to show up and support those programs.

Fans will be watching how Josh Brooks handles the men’s basketball transition. It’s not only an opportunity to reverse the decades-long fortunes of that program. It’s also going to be a signal to fans of all of Stegeman’s occupants. What will be the standards for success? What level of investment and support can these programs expect? Can the same combination of institutional vision and resources that led to a title in Indianapolis also align to finally add more dates to Stegeman Coliseum’s banners?