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Post Sanford improves concessions process – but not pricing

Wednesday August 29, 2018

The West endzone will be the most visible change for Sanford Stadium visitors this season, but fans can expect other improvements in and around the stadium intended to improve the fan experience.

Marc Weiszer has a piece up spotlighting some of the new processes and facilities that should improve the concessions inside the stadium. The West endzone project itself adds new points of sale (and restrooms), and we’ll see more Masters-style “grab and go” stations.

A variation of this “grab and go” system was introduced in Stegeman Coliseum last season, and it made a big difference. Line length even at peak times was shortened, and you were usually through the line within a minute or two. I hope fans at Sanford Stadium notice a similar improvement. Weiszer also mentions some of the technology they’re testing. I’m less enthusiastic about that, but I appreciate the effort and the goal to improve our time inside the stadium.

It’s unfair to compare Sanford Stadium with newer professional stadiums. Sanford is constrained in several directions by the campus, and most of it was built when “fan experience” related only to how well things were going Between the Hedges. The footprint of Mercedes-Benz Stadium is massive – even 25% larger than the Georgia Dome. That’s not due to a big difference in capacity; it’s wider concourses, more open gathering space, nearly 50% more points of sale, and more fan amenities. UGA has maximized the space in Reed Alley, the Gate 6 area, and now the West endzone, but that’s nothing next to what’s possible designing a modern stadium from scratch. Georgia’s improvements to Sanford Stadium will have to continue to be incremental. The kind of process review that led to the “grab and go” system is a creative way to get more out of limited space.

But while Georgia might be making it easier to get concessions, I haven’t seen anything about pricing. Several teams, some within our own state, are leading an intiative to make concessions prices more reasonable. The twist is that they’re seeing increased revenue and happier customers after lowering prices.

If you’ve been to an event at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, you’ve noticed the prices for basic concessions. Sure, you’ll pay $8 for a Fox Bros. sandwich or a craft beer, but a bottle of water is $2. Same for a basic hot dog, pretzel, or popcorn. This “fan first” pricing was a big part of the buildup to the opening of the stadium. The Hawks will have a similar pricing plan in the refurbished Philips Arena.

It’s not a money-losing proposition either. The Falcons found that with more options and reasonable prices fans came into the stadium earlier and spent more. I found that to be my experience at a couple of events at the Benz – I was much more likely to grab an extra bottle of water or two during a game. It’s gone over well – so well that the Falcons and Mercedes-Benz Stadium are going even further for the 2018 season.

Now some colleges are beginning to roll out similar pricing schemes. Texas will introduce new pricing this year with most items ranging between $3 and $5. Ole Miss dropped prices for basketball last season. Mississippi State joined in with a big price drop this summer with many items now $2. Georgia Tech is offering 20% discounts on concessions to season ticket holders.

Even though Georgia might be limited in the points of sale it can add in Sanford Stadium, pricing is one thing they could look at for the next round of fan experience improvements. It’s not without precedent here – Georgia halved the pregame price of water for last season’s opener to encourage fans to arrive early on a hot day and continue into the stadium from the Dawg Walk. That was thoughtful and appreciated. The Dawg Walk seems to occur earlier and earlier each season, and it’s to the program’s benefit to have a large crowd at Dawg Walk that wants to transition into the stadium well before kickoff.


Post Likely starter might be unavailable for the opener

Wednesday August 29, 2018

That’s an ominous headline, isn’t it? Whose name comes to mind? Georgia’s already down one possible starter in Tyrique McGhee. Zamir White wasn’t expected to start, but he projected to be a heavy contributor.

The name I’m talking about is Terry Godwin. I have to admit that I’ve thought way too much about this, but it seems to be one of the more under-discussed stories of preseason. I don’t mean under-reported: reporters have diligently reported on Godwin’s presence and status at practice. It’s just that the news that Georgia’s leading returning receiver might or might not be available for the opener (and beyond – who knows?) has been greeted with such a nonchalance by most of us.

The story starts with a nagging knee and groin injury from spring. He played in G-Day but only recorded 2 catches for 8 yards. Godwin was still limited as preseason camp opened. After Godwin missed the first preseason scrimmage, Kirby Smart reported that Godwin was “still dinged up” and hoped he would be back “soon.” Godwin didn’t take part in the second scrimmage but went through drills. UGASports.com reported on August 21 that Godwin went through drills at practice and “did not appear limited.”

But Smart revealed on Monday that Godwin is now “questionable” for the season opener. Observers at practice this week have noted that Godwin isn’t even going through drills – at least the drills seen by the media. Apparently there’s a new injury – a “calf strain” added to the litany of nagging problems with which Godwin is struggling.

I know fans are excited about Demetris Robertson, and the returning group of Hardman, Ridley, Crumpton, and others leaves Georgia with a deep and talented group. But Godwin isn’t just the team’s most productive receiver in terms of raw stats, he’s also among the most efficient in the SEC. His availability might not matter for Austin Peay, but anything beyond that becomes a fairly large concern for Georgia’s offense.


Post Early opponents plan to test Georgia deep

Thursday August 23, 2018

Last week we looked at how Missouri’s productive TE might be a matchup problem for Georgia. Today it’s a different element of the pass game.

Georgia is replacing several contributors in the defensive backfield. Dominick Sanders tied the program record with 16 career interceptions. Aaron Davis was a multi-year starter. Malkom Parrish was arguably the unit’s surest tackler. The Dawgs avoided disaster when junior Deandre Baker decided to return for his senior season, but there are still issues with depth and experience in the secondary.

Georgia has several candidates for the open positions. Many of them are sophomores or younger. Unfortunately one of the more experienced players, Tyrique McGhee, has a foot injury that might keep him sidelined into September. That’s bad timing since Georgia will face two of the best quarterbacks they’ll see all season within the first four games. Georgia’s youth and depth in the secondary will be heavily tested in two early road games.

We saw first-hand in Athens last season what Missouri’s Drew Lock-to-Emanuel Hall connection is capable of. Hall can stretch the field on the outside and create room for Okwuegbunam and other receivers underneath.

South Carolina also plans to take more shots downfield.

“The way we take more risks, throwing more deep balls,” (backup QB Michael) Scarnecchia said when asked about the biggest difference between a Gamecock offense coordinated by Bryan McClendon and the one coordinated the last two years by Kurt Roper.

“It’s very important because we want to stretch the defense,” (QB coach Dan) Werner said. “We want to make sure they understand they have to cover the whole field. That’s going to be a huge part of our offense.”

Of course there’s plenty of risk with that approach especially when coupled with South Carolina’s stated intent to push tempo. A few quick low-percentage shots downfield could keep a defense on its heels, but it could also lead to plenty of three-and-outs and more possessions for opponents. With Georgia’s ability to run and move the ball, possessions could be few and far between for opponents.

Both opponents will likely use the running game as a counter to keep defenses honest and to set up pass plays with play-action and RPOs. Neither will try to be dominant on the ground. Georgia did well to limit both teams on the ground a year ago – South Carolina rushed for 43 yards and Missouri 59 with neither breaking a run longer than 15 yards. Missouri, with Derek Dooley calling the offense, might try to run a little more, but it should still be an offense heavy on the pass. Anything Georgia can do to keep these running games a nuisance at best will help the pass defense. These games will also be opportunities for Georgia’s next wave of pass rushers to establish themselves.

Kirby Smart understands that he doesn’t have much time to get a functional unit together.

Experience in the secondary. We lost a lot of guys that played a lot of snaps…We have some young players, but they haven’t played and haven’t played in our system. We have got to get those guys game ready really quick.

That group will be tested early by a pair of retooled offenses under new coordinators intent on producing big plays through the air.


Post Can there be Olympus without Zeus?

Thursday August 23, 2018

Because we need another “what it all means” piece about Zamir White’s knee.

Zamir White’s season-ending injury on Saturday was tough to take. The first concern of course is for White himself. He’s worked extremely hard to come back from his knee injury last fall, and he was just beginning to see the payoff from that work. White’s commitment last summer jump-started the amazing 2018 signing class, and landing the top tailback in the nation did a lot to ease concerns over losing Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.

White’s impact on the 2018 backfield has been in flux since his first injury. At first we had to consider the possibility of a backfield without White. Then as stories of his Chubb-like rehab appeared, we were encouraged that Zeus might be available for some, if not most, of the season. Preseason camp opened at the beginning of August, and Kirby Smart announced straight away that White was cleared for all activity (though still in a brace.) White might really see action from the season opener, and fans once again entertained dreams of another loaded backfield.

This latest injury brings us back full circle to the state of things last fall. Georgia must forge ahead with a backfield minus Zamir White for now. The good news is that plenty of pieces are in place for Georgia to have another productive rushing attack. The offensive line is talented, as deep as it’s been in years, and well-coached. Georgia will get yards on the ground from other sources. We’ll see Hardman and other receivers used on wildcat snaps and also on sweeps. Justin Fields adds a new rushing threat from the quarterback position, though Georgia’s depth concerns at QB could limit how many designed runs are called for Fields. There are three returning tailbacks with meaningful game experience. There’s another highly-rated newcomer who might prove to be one of the most exciting additions to the roster.

Even with all of that going for them, I do think the absence of White will be noticed. It’s not just his special skill set. He’s a certain style of back that filled a specific niche in the backfield that isn’t completely covered without him. Here’s what I mean:

Swift was devastating as a third option behind Chubb and Michel, and he seems to have all of the attributes of a star tailback. He’s about as proven as anyone can be without having started. The only question about Swift is his ability to scale his production with 2-3x as many carries. Chubb, Michel, and Gurley all missed time at some point in their careers with injuries. Can Swift prove to be durable enough to last through the season as the primary tailback? One fewer back makes that more difficult especially over a season that could last 15 games. Georgia will surely use its depth to manage the load on Swift, but his availability is the key to Georgia’s running game. A lingering groin injury from spring will have to be watched.

Holyfield and Herrien are in what I’d call Richard Samuel territory. You have some nice highlights, mostly from garbage time. Speed, size, and strength aren’t a problem. There are questions about vision and elusiveness and similar traits that distinguish decent backs from special ones. There’s no shame in struggling to break through behind Chubb and Michel, and no one is asking these two to replace a pair of top draft picks. But in addition to replacing Chubb and Michel, the Dawgs are also looking to replace Swift. Trotting in Swift after a steady pounding of Chubb and Michel was almost unfair, and both Holyfield and Herrien will have that opportunity to be the coup de grâce of this year’s team. Forget replacing Nick and Sony – matching Swift’s 618 yards from a year ago as the third tailback will require either Holyfield or Herrien to more than double their output.

James Cook is now the lone newcomer, and how fortunate are we that he saw an opportunity at Georgia? Reports out of preseason camp have Cook as a potential breakout star, and that would help to ease the blow of White’s absence. Most of the accolades though have had to do with Cook’s versatility and his potential as a receiving weapon out of the backfield. Sometimes a tailback just has to be a tailback and get three yards between the tackles. Comparisons of White to Chubb and Cook to Sony Michel were convenient shorthand during recruiting, but the versatility of Michel was only part of his story. Michel was a solid guy who carried at least 20 more pounds as a senior than Cook will as a freshman. Necessity forced Michel to learn how to run inside as the featured back when Chubb was injured in 2015, and he became a better and more-rounded tailback for it. I don’t expect that of Cook right out of the gate.

The situation isn’t as dire as it was from, say, 2003-2005. Those were some very good Georgia teams that earned two SEC East titles, but the running game might have held those teams back from even bigger things. Georgia isn’t trotting out inexperienced players unsure of who might step up. 2007 might be a good measuring stick for this group – you had Knowshon Moreno bust out for 1,334 yards, and Thomas Brown had a solid 779. Both averaged over 5 YPC. Kregg Lumpkin was the only other tailback of note on that roster, and he was injured. The 2018 group is deeper, but I’d like to see if two backs emerge to be as productive as the Moreno/Brown tandem was in 2007. A third back north of 500 yards would mean another formidable rushing attack.


Post What it means to replace Nick and Sony

Tuesday August 14, 2018

Football Study Hall has a piece looking at the most well-rounded tailbacks from 2017. To determine how well-rounded a back is, they looked at the combination of efficiency and explosiveness. For efficiency, they looked at a back’s success rate relative to the expected success rate for a play, and explosiveness compared actual vs. expected IsoPP. All of that is defined much better in the post.

There were only 22 backs in 2017 with at least 150 carries “who rated in the 50th percentile in both marginal efficiency and explosiveness.” It should come as no surprise that Georgia had two of those 22. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel weren’t just productive in terms of yardage. They were both among the best in the nation at being efficient and explosive, and they accomplished that sharing carries in a tailback rotation that went five-deep. Michel was in the 80th percentile in both categories.

That’s what Georgia is attempting to replace at tailback. It’s not just 2,600 yards and 31 TD. It’s generating that production with a consistency of both efficiency and explosiveness.

One point the FSH piece makes is how running the ball is a tough way to get ahead.

First things first: it must be noted that, of these 83 players, only 28 produced a marginal efficiency above zero percent. As with what people have begun to firmly establish on the pro side…running is a reasonably lower-ceilinged endeavor. It’s lower-risk, too, and some teams have certainly figured out how to run more than others, but for a majority of feature backs, handing them the ball was likely to put you behind schedule. It was also far less likely to produce big plays — only 18 of these 83 produced a marginal explosiveness above plus-0.0 points per successful run.

Georgia was able to buck that trend and produce a dominant running game in 2017 largely because they had an unusual concentration of backs who could stay ahead of the chains (efficient success rate) and possessed a better-than-most threat to rip off an explosive run. It would be an accomplishment for Georgia to have one such back in 2018 – it was nearly unstoppable to have two. That alone suggests a larger role for the passing game for Georgia’s offense in 2018.

Another interesting thing from that post: Georgia faced six of the 19 rushing quarterbacks (60+ attempts, not including sacks) who rated in the 50th percentile or better in both rushing efficiency and explosiveness. The results?

  • Taylor Lamb (App St.): 10 carries, 66 yards, 1 TD, 32 long
  • Brandon Wimbush (Notre Dame): 16 carries, 1 yard, 1 TD, 8 long
  • Nick Fitzgerald (Mississippi State): 10 carries, 47 yards, 0 TD, 14 long
  • Stephen Johnson (Kentucky): 8 carries, 4 yards, 0 TD, 7 long
  • Jalen Hurts (Alabama): 6 carries, 47 yards, 0 TD, 31 long
  • Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma): 12 carries, 1 yard, 0 TD, 22 long

Yes, those yardage totals include sack yardage, but the few explosive runs Georgia gave up to rushing quarterbacks were more or less inconsequential. Considering that the scrambling QB was considered an Achilles heel of the defense entering the season, those are some fairly impressive results against a half-dozen of the nation’s most well-rounded rushing quarterbacks.


Post Matchups that keep you up at night

Tuesday August 14, 2018

The stars have aligned to bring several Missouri previews across the wire this week. We’ve all circled the South Carolina trip as an early battle in the SEC East, but there’s another September trip to another Columbia that will test Georgia’s reloaded defense.

Missouri of course got Georgia’s attention last season with a competitive first half and tallied the most points scored on Georgia until the Auburn game. They’re replacing a creative offensive coordinator (with Derek Dooley) and lose productive receiver J’Mon Moore. But talented quarterback Drew Lock returns after considering a jump to the NFL, and deep threat Emanuel Hall will remain a favorite target. In 2017 Hall got behind the Georgia defense for 141 yards and two long scores on just four receptions.

But the Missouri player I find myself dwelling on is sophomore TE Albert Okwuegbunam. Georgia fans will be glad to see South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst gone, but “Albert O” might be in a position to take Hurst’s place as a nightmare matchup. As a freshman Okwuegbunam caught 29 passes for 415 yards and an impressive 11 touchdowns. Better than 1 out of every 3 catches went for a score. Only Ole Miss’s A.J. Brown, considered the SEC’s top returning wide receiver, had as many receiving touchdowns.

Okwuegbunam caught a four-yard shovel pass for Missouri’s first touchdown in Athens last year, but he’s most dangerous releasing down the seam. He’s a favorite target on pop passes where interior defenders must pay attention to the run and also follow the imposing tight end releasing right past them. At a solid 6’5″ and 260 lbs., he’s a load for most defensive backs and elusive enough to get open against slower linebackers.

Modern offenses love to feature the Gronkowski-style receiver exactly because of that speed vs. size conundrum, and Missouri seems to have found their Gronk in Okwuegbunam. It’s something Georgia is looking for in its fleet of tight ends, and it’s why Georgia fans ask about the position every offseason. There’s a trade-off in a power running game when the TE must often stay in to block, but we know that hasn’t been Missouri’s identity.

Other than the shovel pass on which Okwuegbunam sliced through Georgia’s interior defense, he had just one other reception in the game. The matchup interests me more this year because of what Georgia lost on the interior of the defense. The Dawgs will miss Roquan Smith for many reasons, and his pass coverage ability is near the top of the list. That had been a big weakness of Georgia’s middle linebackers prior to Smith, and it’s not an easy job even for the best. Georgia also loses ball-hawking defensive back Dominick Sanders. Sanders worked at both safety and star – positions that might be asked to pick up a releasing tight end down the seam. We’ll find out in September if Georgia’s replacements at both ILB and safety/star can be as effective containing one of the SEC’s most prolific scorers.


Post I have been in the revenge business so long…I do not know what to do

Wednesday August 1, 2018

Whether it was an actual motivator of the 2017 team or or just a fan meme, the “Revenge Tour” theme took on a life of its own as the Bulldogs plowed through their 2017 schedule. When you lose five games the previous season, there are ample opportunities for revenge. Georgia throttled by an average of 41.5-7 the four teams they played last season that beat the Bulldogs in 2016. Facing Auburn in the SEC title game gave the Dawgs one more chance to avenge a loss, and that turned out pretty well too.

So with winning streaks over all scheduled 2018 opponents, where should the Bulldogs turn for motivation? It will be the other team more often than not looking for payback against Georgia. Georgia will be hunted each week as a highly-ranked target. No, a team in Georgia’s position shouldn’t need anything special to prepare for each game, but that doesn’t mean we can’t give it to them. We might have to dig a little deeper, but there are still some scores to settle for the 2018 team.

1) Tech. Let’s put it this way: Tech hasn’t won three straight in Athens since The Streak. They retired the jersey of the Georgia player that ended that dark era. Georgia was in a good position to win each of the last two Athens games, and most of us surely have sour memories of the squib kick in 2014 or the collapse in 2016 – both resulting in an excruciating last-second loss. Georgia should be heavily favored to get the home win, but another home loss would be devastating both in terms of the rivalry and also any postseason hopes Georgia might hold at that point.

2) Florida. Last season’s win was thoroughly enjoyable, and it was even more enjoyable to sit back and revel in the final 3+ quarters with the game well in hand. It was only one win though, and that’s just a small step towards righting the lopsided series record since 1990. Prior to last season’s breakthrough Georgia had lost three straight in the series, and surely you don’t forget Florida winning in 2014 with 400+ rushing yards and completing just three passes. We’re only a couple of seasons removed from the quarterback experiment in 2015 that toppled a coaching staff. No, the 2017 win was nice, but it’s just a start. The Dawgs haven’t had consecutive double-digit margins of victory in Jacksonville since 1987-88.

3) Tennessee. Forget 41-0. Forget the Pruitt storylines. We know any network worth its salt will lead its coverage of this game with the Hail Mary. Tennessee last left the Sanford Stadium field with a win after 15 of the most wild seconds of football you’ll ever see. Some key contributors in that game are long gone, but enough remain who want to erase that memory. Riley Ridley was a hero for all of ten seconds. It didn’t help that the Dawgs blew a 17-0 lead too. Mad yet?

4) Auburn. So the SEC championship was a measure of revenge. Fine. Auburn still spoiled Georgia’s undefeated regular season. If the season goes the way we expect, Georgia might come into this game in an identical position. It’s bad enough to give Auburn that satisfaction once. Two seasons in a row would be a black mark. For a time about 20 years ago, the road team had the upper hand in this series. Mark Richt changed that, and the Dawgs haven’t lost a home game to Auburn since 2005. Let’s keep it that way.

5) Vanderbilt. Yes, poor, hapless Vanderbilt – specialists at ruining Homecoming. As with Tech and the Vols, this game is more about what happened on Vanderbilt’s last trip to Sanford Stadium. The last time we saw them in Athens, a Georgia team with Chubb and Michel decided to run tiny Isaiah McKenzie on a decisive 4th and 1. Derek Mason got his signature SEC win at Georgia’s expense and on Georgia’s field. I’m still not over it, and I hope the players who were around then aren’t. Never underestimate an opportunity to stomp Vanderbilt, because nothing defines an underachieving season like losing to the Commodores.

6) South Carolina. You might be able to find a redshirt senior or two who were around for the 2014 loss in Columbia, but this isn’t really about revenge. It’s more about Georgia claiming what’s theirs and reinforcing the accomplishment of last season. This is the first title defense against the mouthy challenger. The talk from the east has already started, and a handful of pundits think this could be an early stumble for Georgia. A loss here could put serious pressure on Georgia’s chances to repeat in the SEC East. I expect Georgia to be locked in for this one.

7) UMass. Because screw those guys, right?


Post Successful recruiting weekend has space getting tight in the 2019 class

Tuesday July 31, 2018

It was a special weekend for football recruiting in Athens as the 2019 class picked up pledges from top targets at tailback, athlete, and linebacker. The announcements came after “The Reveal” – an event to show off the new west endzone project and locker room to some of Georgia’s top recruiting prospects. The Reveal had its intended effect, and Kirby Smart was quick to thank the donors who contributed to the project.

The weekend’s haul raised Georgia’s commitment total for the 2019 class to 16. The Dawgs have added six commitments since mid-July. That’s turned a solid core of a class into one that’s suddenly close to filling up. The thing is that the 2019 class isn’t expected to be a large one. The current senior class is fairly small (around 16 players), and even normal amounts of attrition along with an early NFL entry or two only get you so much flexibility. Jeff Sentell projected the size of the 2019 class at 21.

The number might shift one way or the other – they always seem to find the room to sign just one more, don’t they? Say it’s somewhere between 20-23. But the exact number isn’t the point. It’s a safe bet that Georgia’s class will come in under the limit of 25. Space in this class is beginning to become tight. If we use Sentell’s number, that means we head into August with only five spots available. Some thoughts on the next four months of recruiting with single-digit spots remaining:

  • Recruiting news will probably slow down. There could be one or two more decisions before the season, but Georgia’s targets also include some waiting until Signing Day or at least the end of the high school season. Journalists covering recruiting will find angles to keep readers engaged, but we’re not going to see things proceed at the same pace with six commitments in two weeks. Other schools might appear in the recruiting news more than Georgia. That’s OK.
  • The staff knows who their remaining targets are. They’ll focus on those few while keeping other options alive. Managing those few remaining spots will be the job until the class is full, and the staff can afford to be very, very picky.
  • Will there be even less Georgia drama in this year’s late signing period? Georgia had a few but impressive additions in February to put the 2018 class over the top. With only five or so scholarships left to fill for 2019, how many will remain available after December?
  • Are all of the current commitments firm? When you’re dealing with such elite prospects, they’ll be prime targets of other programs until the moment they sign. Georgia will spend plenty of time re-recruiting each commitment.
  • Along those lines, will the list change for other reasons? We saw attrition from last year’s class right from the beginning. Whether or not Georgia encouraged those prospects to look elsewhere in order to make room for interest from a “must-take” player, it’s not unheard of.
  • We know that even after the class is done and full this staff won’t stop looking for ways to improve it. Graduate transfers, regular transfers, walk-ons, and unsigned JUCOs will all be in play once we get a better understanding of the needs of the team after the 2018 season. The pursuit of those late additions will have to be as much a part of the roster management as the size of the 2019 recruiting class.

Post Commitment as catharsis

Tuesday July 31, 2018

Blutarsky wrote last week that “what this reminds you most of is one of (Mark) Richt’s glaring issues, the ability to fix one thing and have something else crop up to bedevil him.” He was discussing an autopsy of the 2015 season, but the painful truth of that statement is that it applied across many areas of the program during Richt’s 15 years. In this context it had to do with the composition of the coaching staff. Other times it could have been special teams or oven who called the plays. Often it had to do with recruiting and roster management.

It became a maddening characteristic of Richt’s teams to be out of phase. If you only looked at individual talent, you’d rightly say that the team was loaded with blue-chips. That was enough for a very good 15-year run with occasional divisional titles and even two conference championships. But many times the best talent was clustered on one side of the ball or the other. Rarely did a strong offense and defense come together. The 2003 team had one of the best defenses in the nation, but the offense was middle of the pack in the SEC. A decade ago Georgia had high draft picks at quarterback, tailback, and receiver, but the defense was in the twilight of the Willie Martinez years. Things did come together in 2012, but they got right back out of sync.

Few teams are ever going to be completely well-rounded, but it’s beyond frustrating in those rare seasons with legitimate title aspirations and generational talent at certain positions knowing that inconsistent recruiting over a period of years at other positions could blow the whole thing up. It’s even more frustrating when you can identify the prospect or two who might keep a position from becoming a weakness down the road (or even turn it into a strength) and just can’t land them. We’ve seen that too.

Every year there are always a couple of prospects who emerge as touchstones for a successful signing class. It’s the nature of following recruiting to place undue importance on those decisions, but once in a while there really are such things as must-sign prospects. The ones that get away can sting for a while – recruitniks still talk about the trio that left Georgia in 1997 to fuel Tennessee’s run. But Kirby Smart has begun to add more than his share of these key prospects. Jacob Eason was an immediate boon for Smart. Not only did Georgia need an upgrade at quarterback, but Eason’s decision to stick with his commitment gave instant legitimacy to a risky hire dealing with a divided fan base. Richard LeCounte helped to pull together an impressive class following a 2016 lukewarm season. Zamir White kickstarted last season’s class after a sluggish start, but many fans considered Jamaree Salyer the make-or-break commitment that would define a successful class.

Travon Walker became one of those prospects for the 2019 class. To begin with, an in-state 5* defensive lineman is always going to be a priority. But Walker’s decision carried with it an unusual amount of angst that seemed out of step with the current boom in Georgia recruiting. As well as Kirby Smart and his staff had recruited, elite defensive line talent proved elusive. Derrick Brown was an early disappointment. Rick Sandidge would have made a nice addition to the nation’s top class. These decisions weren’t devastating because Georgia had decent depth along the line in the short term, and the arrival of Jay Hayes made things a little less dire in 2018. But those misses did mean that incoming players like Jordan Davis would have a little more pressure to produce, and they also increased the urgency for the 2019 class.

The relative difficulty recruiting the defensive line also increased the spotlight on defensive line coach Tray Scott. Fair or not, Scott was beginning to feel some heat as the defensive line became one of the few position groups not to sign a 5* prospect. As well as Georgia was stocking talent at other positions, the defensive line lagged. Georgia already had a couple of quality defensive end 2019 commitments in Bill Norton and Zion Logue, but Walker would be the tell: could Georgia land an elite defensive linemen with so much in its favor: in-state, a solid long-term relationship, and playing time at a position of need? They could and did.

Walker’s commitment checks all of the boxes in terms of what the team needs from a defensive lineman. Beyond that, it calms the nerves of those who think about things like the two-deep a year or two down the road. Could Smart and his staff avoid a pitfall with which the previous staff struggled? Neuroses of the Georgia fan base die hard, and the looming possibility of a key position once again holding back an otherwise loaded team was all too fresh of a memory. Walker assuaged that concern for now. He’s just one piece of the puzzle, but it’s a big piece that moves Georgia a little closer to the well-rounded roster they’ll need to remain on top.


Post Incentives part 2 – the shrinking visitor’s section

Tuesday July 17, 2018

I wrote earlier that SEC fans are still attending games, and that’s true in most cases. One area in which there seems to be a little softening is in the time-honored tradition of the visitor’s section. Of course with rabid SEC fans there will always be plenty of loyal opposition in the stands, and the one or two best games on the schedule will always be a tough ticket, but the phrase “tickets returned from visiting teams” seems to be showing up a lot more often.

Variable ticket pricing isn’t a new development – it’s been around in some form in the SEC for most of this decade. Teams have figured out the mechanics of charging more for premium (or just conference) games. Neither is supply-and-demand a revelation. When the prices of tickets rise, we’ll see less demand for them. For home fans, it’s somewhat more difficult to turn away. There are other things at stake beyond the ticket price – maintaining a location held for generations and the ritual of tailgating and a fall weekend in Athens make it tempting to swallow each subsequent price increase.

With the introduction of variable pricing for its home games in 2018, Georgia’s had enough tickets returned this year from opponents to offer a five-game pack to the general public for all home games except Tennessee and Auburn. Georgia’s not having a problem selling season tickets to its own fans (new season tickets require nearly 24,000 points), but many are simply holding their spot for the Notre Dame game in 2019. Visiting fans don’t care about our future schedule, and it will be telling to see if these packages will be met with as much interest by Georgia fans since they’re 1) not sold at a discount and 2) aren’t renewable.

It’s not just Georgia of course. Alabama is offering single-game tickets based on returns from opponents. We’re not talking cupcakes – divisional foes Mississippi State and Texas A&M returned tickets. We can joke about fans just not wanting to witness a blowout in person, but Alabama didn’t just become dominant. Alabama’s lowest ticket prices for nonconference games is $40. Prices for conference games are more than twice that, and the A&M game costs nearly three times as much. A sizable number of visiting fans are just staying home.

A related casualty of variable pricing is the visiting band. With equipment and larger instruments, a 350-person band can use well over 500 seats. Since most of the higher-prices games are likely to be conference matchups, the cost to bring a full band has skyrocketed. You’ll see fewer full bands and more 40-100 person pep bands in the visitor’s section across the conference. There will be exceptions for high-profile games (think Notre Dame or Georgia-Florida), but each exception will require a difficult decision by an athletic department to write the check.

Most of us would prefer to never see the color orange or yellow in Sanford Stadium, but a large and vocal block of opposing fans is a fairly unique element of college football. You know it’s a big game when you start to see the other team’s fans arriving in town. On the flip side, following the Dawgs on the road can produce some of the best experiences you’ll have as a fan. Still, the decision whether to attend a road game is often a financial one, and higher ticket prices on top of other travel expenses can make it an easy decision to stay home. If the seats end up filled by home fans, is pricing visiting fans out of the stadium a bug or a feature?


Post Incentives part 1 – SEC scheduling

Tuesday July 17, 2018

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey discussed the conference schedule on Monday, and I expect his honesty won’t sit well.

Schools and coaches still prefer the eight-game, 6-1-1 model for football conference scheduling. He does not expect a move to a nine-game schedule anytime soon. He cited the SEC having 10 teams play in postseason bowls for four straight years and four teams winning nine of the last 12 national championships as evidence the current formula works.

He’s correct, of course. The SEC has the luxury of using the schedule as a tool – a means to ends. Those ends are playoff appearances, bowl bids, and revenue. The top teams SEC aren’t penalized for their nonconference schedules, and they likely won’t be. The other teams jockeying for bowl bids (and the bonuses that come with them) don’t want seven extra losses distributed across the conference. Nick Saban wouldn’t mind an extra conference game, but he’s not particularly worried about a bowl bid or a regular season loss keeping him out of the playoff.

The schools aren’t going to be leading the charge on this. It’s against their interests to do so. Fans could vote with their dollars, but SEC attendance is strong and demand is fairly inelastic (though not completely so.) It was possible that the expansion of television coverage would prompt the conference to increase its inventory of interesting games, but that hasn’t happened either – yet. If SEC revenue lags relative to new Big Ten deals, the networks can always ask the SEC to bring more to the table.

The schools will need better incentives than the ones they have now to get on board adding another conference game. In the meantime, enjoy that trip to College Station in six years.


Post Next in the facilities arms race – when and where?

Wednesday July 11, 2018

A big issue in the planning and construction of the magnificent IPF was site selection. The administration had to weigh several possible locations with pros and cons for each. A location out on South Milledge would have allowed for a sprawling complex with plenty of room for growth, but as we saw in 2016 it was no fun moving daily practice miles from the rest of the training facilities. Potential locations on campus eliminated logistical problems, but cramped real estate required the loss of practice fields or even campus buildings.

Georgia eventually settled on an on-campus location adjacent to the Butts-Mehre building. It cost the football program some outdoor practice space and some headaches with temporary practice fields during construction, but in the end it seems to have been a successful project that benefits the entire athletic department. We moved on to the next project, the west endzone of Sanford Stadium, to bring recruiting and locker room facilities up to par. That’s just about wrapped up, so what’s next?

Seth Emerson’s recent Mailbag (subscription required) gets us thinking again about the room available for future athletics projects. Emerson identifies several football-related projects that might go on a facilities master plan. There’s a need for a larger weight room that can accomodate the entire team. There’s no training table facility. Office space for an expanded staff is also tight. The location of the IPF worked well for its purpose, but it means that the Butts-Mehre building can’t really expand outward. Could it grow vertically? Probably not, but you’d have to ask the structural engineers.

Emerson mentions the possibility of an annex near Stegeman Coliseum, and that might be a location he brought up three years ago. When locations for the IPF were kicked around, the land containing the Hoke Smith buildings and parking lot was one of the options. That’s roughly the rectangle bordered by Lumpkin Street, the Georgia Center Hotel, Stegeman Coliseum, and the existing practice fields. The trick with using that area remains the same: you’d incur the additional costs of relocating those academic facilities and have some additional political wrangling to do since those buildings house state 4-H and CES services.

If that location does become available, it’s certainly a sizeable and centrally-located plot of land that could house an impressive training facility with a large weight room, dining, and medical training areas. Alabama is opening its own new “sports and nutrition” facility soon. At Georgia, office and conference space could be included as part of a comprehensive “football building”, or you could repurpose space in Butts-Mehre once the weight room is relocated. If you’d prefer to keep all football activites attached to the IPF, you could use the Hoke Smith land to build a new facility just for athletics administration while completely refurbishing the Butts-Mehre site for football. It’s just money, right?

While we’re thinking about football facilities, Seth reminds us that any master plan should seek input from every sport. The indoor tennis facility is already slated to be replaced. Can much more be done to Stegeman Coliseum? The Coliseum Training Facility was state-of-the-art when it opened, but that opening was 11 years ago. Foley Field received a minor upgrade within the past couple of years, but significant expansion is constrained by its location. Those are just a handful of Georgia’s sports programs, but what they have in common is competition for space within the Vince Dooley Athletic Complex on campus. The scarcity of land within that area only strengthens Emerson’s point that development within this area has to be approached strategically with a master plan. The haphazard planning that led UGA to scrap Butts-Mehre improvements five years after completion won’t cut it.


Post Rules changes and redshirt what-ifs

Thursday July 5, 2018

Two big administrative rule changes last month. As of October 15, a player may transfer without permission from his/her coach, and the player will be added to a national transfer database making him or her eligible to be contacted by any other coach (again without the need for approval from the current coach.) It’s not “free agency” in football – there’s still the requirement to sit out a year – but the rules are now a little more favorable for prospective transfers. One thing to watch – conferences can still make rules that are more restrictive than the national rule. Will they?

The other change allows players to see action in as many as four games while still preserving a redshirt season. We’ll be able to see true freshmen get valuable game experience, and it won’t cost them as in the past. It will also give coaches some flexibility with the roster in the event of injuries that might keep a veteran player out a couple of games but not an entire season. You’d also expect redshirt freshmen to be more prepared to play in their first full season after getting their feet wet as true freshmen.

Many of us went to the same place when this news came out: how might this rule have played out in the past? Would playing a redshirting freshman in a couple of games have mattered enough to change outcomes?

Chip Towers spent some time talking about one of the what-ifs: Knowshon Moreno in 2006. Aaron Murray in 2009 came to mind. The decision to redshirt Murray was made less complicated by injuries, but some playing time late in 2009 might have prepared him better for taking over in 2010 (a season that started 1-4.) Selfishly, how about more opportunities to see Murray throwing to A.J. Green? Their time together was cut short by Green’s 2010 suspension. In their first game together, we got this pass.

The redshirt what-if scenario that stuck with me was David Greene in 2000. This one might’ve changed Georgia football history.

The 2000 season famously fell apart, and it led to a coaching change. The South Carolina game was a debacle, but it was the only contest Georgia dropped until midseason, and Georgia remained in a position to compete for the SEC East title. The quarterback position began to unravel midseason. Quincy Carter hadn’t been impressive: there were the five interceptions at South Carolina, but even in wins over Tennessee and Vanderbilt he completed a combined 20-of-37. Carter missed the Kentucky game with an injury, and Georgia turned to Cory Phillips. Phillips was stellar at Kentucky, but he gave way to the return of Carter against Florida. That game was going well, and Georgia was poised to go up by double-digits at halftime. A Lito Sheppard interception of Carter changed the game, the score was tied at halftime, and Florida pulled away in the second half.

The Florida game was also the last Carter would play for Georgia. A thumb ligament injury suffered in the Florida loss ended Carter’s season, and Phillips would start the rest of the way. Terrence Edwards even saw some snaps in a proto-wildcat look. Unfortunately Phillips wasn’t as effective as he had been in Lexington, and Georgia dropped three of its last four games. From the Florida collapse to the horrifying Tech game, fan sentiment began to turn in a big way. It didn’t take long for an announcement to be made after the regular season.

Greene was redshirting in 2000, and there was some rumbling midseason (if not after the South Carolina game) whether it was time to play the true freshman. Donnan, to his credit, put the interests of Greene first and preserved the redshirt. It’s something I’ve seen Donnan asked about over the years, and there’s always the second-guessing about what might have gone differently had Greene played. Quarterback wasn’t the only deficiency with that team. A two-loss season without an SEC East title still wouldn’t have met the high expectations for the 2000 season, and we might still be talking about a coaching change. It’s possible though that a better finish to the season with the promise of Greene under center for the next several seasons would have been enough to stem the full-on revolt that made a coaching change a done deal.

Then again, imagine the idea of a full-blown Greene/Carter QB controversy heading into 2001 with all of the baggage of the 2000 season in tow.


Post Dawgs ruling the diamonds

Thursday May 31, 2018

Springtime in Athens can be almost as good as the fall, and it’s that much more enjoyable when the Dawgs are playing well. An afternoon basking in the sun at the Magill Tennis Complex, the Jack, or Foley Field should be high on everyone’s to-do list.

This year has been especially exciting with both the baseball and softball teams playing at a high level. Georgia is one of three schools (Florida, FSU) to earn top 8 national seeds in both sports. The softball team has already hosted a regional and super regional and used the homefield advantage to advance to the Women’s College World Series. Now the Diamond Dawgs have the opportunity to host all the way to Omaha.

It’s been a long time coming for Georgia baseball. The even-odd successes and struggles of the 2000s were frustrating at times, but at least there were four CWS trips to enjoy. The program hadn’t returned to the postseason since 2011 and hadn’t hosted a regional since the national runner-up season in 2008. Coach Scott Stricklin entered his fifth season without a postseason trip, and there was a good bit of pressure on Stricklin and the team to have a breakthrough season.

It’s safe to say that the breakthrough season came. The Diamond Dawgs had the second-best record in the SEC and finished 37-19 against one of the toughest schedules in the nation. They’ve swept Clemson and Georgia Tech and have impressive series wins over Arkansas and Texas A&M.

Georgia turned things around largely with pitching. The program has its “lowest team ERA in 50 years.” There’s been solid weekend pitching, the emergence of Aaron Schunk as a closer, and the development of freshmen Ryan Webb and C.J. Smith. Kevin Smith lost his starting role midseason but has rebounded with a string of strong outings highlighted by a win at Florida.

Certainly there’s been some improvement on offense too. Senior Keegan McGovern leads the team in both average and power with significant year-over-year improvements in both areas. His 15 HR have him among the SEC’s top five sluggers, but his team-best .325 batting average doesn’t crack the SEC’s top 15. Beyond McGovern there aren’t many batters setting the league on fire. Instead there have been occasional and timely contributions up and down the lineup. When combined with solid pitching, it’s been enough offense to get the job done.

The baseball team has already achieved its primary goal of reaching the postseason, but now they’re within reach of the program’s seventh trip to Omaha. Hopefully they can enjoy the same success on their home field that their softball counterparts enjoyed a little ways down Milledge.

Softball has had more recent success, reaching the WCWS by upsetting Florida in Gainesville in the 2016 super regional. But the softball Dawgs hadn’t hosted a super regional since 2014, and they hadn’t celebrated a super regional win on their home field since 2010. They dropped to the bottom of a brutal SEC only a year ago, but they’ve bounced back in spectacular fashion.

It’s been a remarkable season for the softball team. They started out on fire, losing only to current #1 Oregon. The loss of ace pitcher Brittany Gray in April (with her ridiculous 0.48 ERA) was a blow, but the team managed to hang on in the top 10. It wasn’t until the final weekend of the season that the team dropped an SEC series. Georgia dropped 4 of 5 games heading into the NCAA tournament, and that slump raised questions about Georgia’s vulnerability and status as a top 8 national seed. An ESPN analyst even picked Georgia as a team likely to be upset in the regional round.

Georgia picked a great time to bounce back. They’ve looked anything but vulnerable in the NCAA tournament, sweeping through both the regional and super regional rounds with five straight wins. Unlike the baseball team, Georgia softball earned its national seed with offense. They lead the SEC in most offensive categories, and they have five of the SEC’s top ten players in batting average. The top third of the order features the blistering speed of Cortni Emanuel, the power of Alyssa DiCarlo, and the versatility of Justice Milz. With such strong team stats, there’s been plenty of production throughout the rest of the lineup.

Replacing the dominant Gray in the pitching circle hasn’t been easy, and Georgia’s turned to a committee approach. Mary Wilson Avant has seen much of the work with Kylie Bass getting her share of starts. It wouldn’t be unheard of for Amanda Ablan to get a start in a pinch. The team’s biggest weakness has been fielding, especially in the infield. Some key mistakes have led to big innings. Pitching has had its shaky moments as well, and that’s to be expected when the ace is sidelined. Coach Lu Harris-Champer hasn’t hesitated to make a change. When Bass and Avant are on, as they were in the super regional against Tennessee, the team has the firepower to advance far in Oklahoma City.


Post Crean’s recruited the fans – now for the hard part

Thursday May 31, 2018

If fans suited up, Tom Crean would have a pretty formidable squad next season. Georgia’s new basketball coach has been relentless in introducing himself to a Georgia fan base preoccupied with spring football and seemingly everything else but a sport that’s over six months away. He’s reached out to students, fired up the massive G-Day crowd, and taken advantage of nearly every opportunity to spread his enthusiasm for the future of Georgia basketball. It’s been impressive to watch him work, and I think he’s been fairly successful.

As every Georgia coach has discovered, recruiting players to Athens can be as difficult – perhaps moreso – than getting Georgia fans to think basketball in April and May. The elite signings have been few and far between (Jumaine Jones, Trey Thompkins, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope), and coaches more often have had to rely on sleeper prospects who overachieved: Gaines, Hayes, Maten, and Frazier. Sometimes it’s worked, but we know that it hasn’t been a consistent winning formula to get the team into the NCAA Tournament or to keep coaches around for very long.

Crean, like Mark Fox and the rest of his predecessors, will sink or swim based on his ability to bring in players. First things first: we’ll worry about things like player development and in-game strategy when the basic raw materials are in place. That hasn’t happened often at Georgia. If you go by the composite class rankings on 24/7, Fox never had a class rated higher than 6th in the SEC. Over half were 9th or worse. (Think football recruiting rankings are unpredictable? Fox’s highest-rated recruiting class in 2016 contained Crump, Harris, and Diatta. His lowest-rated class, the 2014 group that was rated dead-last in the SEC, featured a guy named Maten.)

That’s not really a knock on Fox – it’s not as if Georgia recruiting fell off a cliff. It was never strong to begin with. Fox, like those before him, just wasn’t able to overcome that legacy. Can Crean?

Turning around Georgia’s recruiting fortunes starts with the head coach, and Crean has both the energy and track record to at least have a shot. He has high name recognition and can point to some high-profile protégés in the NBA. Crean has pulled recruits from the Atlanta area before, but, as with Fox, Georgia is not exactly his home turf. For real local impact, coaches rely on their staff. Fox brought in Yasir Rosemond and later Jonas Hayes for that impact. Hayes in particular began to show some results, and Georgia finally landed a series of blue-chip commitments – just in time to change coaches.

Crean’s assembled an impressive staff with local recruiting in mind. Chad Dollar is an Atlanta native with a family legacy in Atlanta basketball. He’s coached in the SEC and at Tech. Amir Abdur-Rahim is cut from the same cloth: an Atlanta native with SEC (and, yes, Tech) experience. Enticing Abdur-Rahim to leave Texas A&M was considered a nice little coup, and he became the program’s highest-paid assistant in the process. Crean augmented those hires with Joe Scott who has Division I head coaching experience and is considered a solid tactician.

It’s going to take a while to gain some traction now that the staff is in place. Two blue-chip local prospects who considered Georgia, E.J. Montgomery and Ashton Hagans (a former Georgia/Fox commitment), are headed to Kentucky. Crean did notch his first recruiting win – combo guard Tye Fagan chose Georgia in the spring signing period over Ole Miss and others. Fagan will be looked to right away to bolster an offense that Crean expects to be more aggressive from outside.

Fagan aside, the new staff’s recruiting efforts will largely turn to 2019 and beyond. There’s a lot of ground to make up as relationships with prospects, schools, and communities can take years to develop. Crean’s name recognition and the familiarity of Abdur-Rahim and Dollar should help to speed that process along. His message will be a common one for programs without much recent success: come start something. “There’s plenty of room for statues,” as Crean put it. That challenge doesn’t always resonate, but when it does, the results can transform a program.