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Post Georgia 62 – Vanderbilt 0: Play ’em all

Wednesday September 29, 2021

SEC rules allow teams to travel 70 players to road games. 68 of Georgia’s 70 saw action in Saturday’s 62-0 demolition of Vanderbilt. The roster sheet my wife brought had a harder workout than several of Georgia’s starters. The only available Bulldogs who didn’t play? Tailback Kendall Milton was reportedly nursing a banged-up shoulder. He was dressed and went through warmups, but there was no need to risk injury. Georgia brought four quarterbacks, but Brock Vandagriff didn’t enter the game. Apparently Carson Beck needed experience handing off.

There’s not much you can take from a game between a very good team and a very, very overmatched one – even by typical Vanderbilt standards. Games like this one are the reason coaches harp on playing to a standard. Did Georgia approach the game the right way? Did they execute well? I’m sure the staff will find coaching points even from this film, but largely the answers were “yes.” Georgia came out sharp for an 11AM local kickoff, took immediate control of the game, and didn’t allow Vanderbilt to muddy the outcome while emptying the bench. Georgia did what it was supposed to, sure, but it was even more impressive than the astronomical 35-point spread led us to expect.

The first quarter was a symphony of offense, defense, and special teams working together to produce 35 points. Vanderbilt didn’t manage a first down until Georgia had scored five touchdowns. The unrelenting defense, a Christopher Smith interception, and a Daijun Edwards fumble return on a kickoff set Georgia’s starting offense up with outstanding field position. Three of Georgia’s early scoring drives started in plus territory, and it wasn’t until Georgia’s fifth possession that the Bulldogs had to drive more than 70 yards. J.T. Daniels was locked in and completed 8 of 9 passes with a single drop to take advantage of the favorable field position. Georgia’s diversified offense scored on a pass to the tight end, a tight end jet sweep, a reverse to a receiver, a power run at the goal line, and a well-placed fade to the back of the endzone. That was enough for Daniels: he exited the game after the first quarter, and the pipeline of backups started flowing into the game.

Vanderbilt’s 77 total yards is a tidy way to sum up the Georgia defense’s afternoon. What impressed me more is that only 27 of those yards came after halftime. Georgia played every defender that boarded the plane, and the reserves maintained the level of play. Vanderbilt didn’t manage a second half first down until their final series of the game. It’s easy to lose focus after such a decisive start, and that might’ve happened towards the end of the first quarter. Vanderbilt’s backup quarterback Mike Wright got Robert Beal in the air with a pump fake and scrambled away as Tramel Walthour was caught inside. Combined with a personal foul against Jalen Carter and Vanderbilt had their biggest gain of the day to move inside of Georgia territory. Wright had another successful run on a 3rd and 8 where Georgia defenders bit on a fake toss and left a lane up the middle. Georgia’s defense quickly refocused. Wright tried a few more fake tosses and option plays and was stuffed, and the Commodores had no other play longer than 10 yards.

There was no statement to be made in this game. We know Georgia’s defense is excellent, and they showed us again. J.T. Daniels proved that his injury wasn’t a big deal against South Carolina, and he again looked to be in complete command of the offense. Brock Bowers has been showing out since the Clemson game. Perhaps the continued emergence of Adonai Mitchell and Ladd McConkey is noteworthy. But once Georgia made it clear that they weren’t going to mess around and make this a close game, the only statement that could be made was about Georgia’s overwhelming talent advantage up and down the bench.

  • The 2006 Vanderbilt win in Athens was the weekend I picked to propose to my future bride. Jalen Carter must have a similar unpleasant memory of Vanderbilt from earlier in his life. I don’t know what they did to hurt him, but he definitely got some anger out. I never saw what drew his personal foul in person or on the replay, but it couldn’t have been much worse than what he was doing the rest of the game.
  • Kelee Ringo has come a long way in just four games. He was in position for several pass break-ups without the contact that drew flags against Clemson. He doesn’t seem likely to give up his starting spot.
  • As impressive as Ringo was early on, Kamari Lassiter was all over the field in the second half. His play (and interception) had a lot to do with Vanderbilt’s meager second half yardage. With Jalen Kimber out for the season, Lassiter will be one of the first defensive backs off the bench.
  • So happy for Robert Beal. He decided to return to the team rather than transfer, and he’s seeing valuable minutes off the bench among a very deep group of players. His hard hit on special teams led to Vanderbilt’s kick return fumble, and he recorded Georgia’s lone sack of the game.
  • With Georgia already well out in front at that point, I was hoping Daijun Edwards would get a carry to finish off his fumble return. He nearly dragged the entire Vanderbilt kick return unit with him to the four yard line.
  • Jake Camarda picked a good day for an off day. Punting from one’s own endzone is a different animal – the main job is to just get the punt off – but neither of his late punts had his usual distance. Kickoffs were a similar story. I wondered if the coaches might just be working on kick coverage, but Kirby Smart’s postgame comments made it clear that the shorter kickoffs weren’t intentional.
  • That said, Vanderbilt’s kick returns were horror shows. The yardage they lost by not simply taking a fair catch on every kick might approach their offense’s total yardage gained.
  • It was good for Stetson Bennett to get two solid drives to start the second half. Georgia moved the ball in the second quarter but came up empty in the red zone. Bennett’s interception was the third of three straight passes that could have been picked. The first drew a pass interference flag, but Cook was open underneath. The second pass was a quick receiver screen, but FitzPatrick missed a block that nearly allowed a defender to step in front of the pass.
  • I credit Vandy’s Clark Lea with not attempting a cheap field goal at the end to deny Georgia a shutout. He essentially conceded the game with a draw on 4th-and-long. His team was simply overmatched. Lea has a tough job ahead of him, but it’s where he wants to be.
  • The crowd was overwhelmingly red of course, and Vanderbilt’s only presence was the ridiculously loud video board. But some pregame showers, the 11 AM local kickoff time, and Georgia’s early onslaught made for a fairly subdued crowd. Perhaps the loudest moment of the game came on Vanderbilt’s final fourth down attempt as the remaining crowd stirred to life to cheer on Georgia’s reserve defenders.

Post Georgia 40 – South Carolina 13: A return to fun

Thursday September 23, 2021

Two years ago South Carolina beat Georgia in a shocking overtime upset in front of a sleepy noon Sanford Stadium crowd. Kirby Smart took responsibility, admitting that he didn’t do a good job of “getting (their) ass ready to play.” South Carolina only mustered one touchdown on offense and had to finish the game with their third-string quarterback. It was enough though – Georgia turnovers, including a pick-six at the end of the first half, and the stagnant 2019 Georgia offense made it an uphill fight just to send the game into overtime. The story of the game and, as it turned out, the season was the evaporation of explosive plays from the Georgia offense. The big plays, especially in the running game, that had come to define Georgia in 2017 and 2018, all but vanished. So it was in Georgia’s lone regular season loss: “South Carolina more or less hit only one big play in the game – their lone offensive touchdown – and that was enough to finish with a better explosiveness metric (IsoPPP) than Georgia.”

All of the elements of the 2019 loss – a sluggish team, the sleepy crowd, and an inexplosive offense – were nowhere to be found in the 2021 rematch. Georgia’s focus was clear with precise scoring drives on the team’s first two possessions. Both of those scores came on explosive plays: James Cook ripped off the team’s longest run of the season, and J.T. Daniels found Jermaine Burton open deep. Daniels added another deep scoring toss to Adonai Mitchell, and Georgia’s offense was able to pack it in by the middle of the third quarter.

It wasn’t billed as a marquee game expected to be full of drama, and it didn’t become one. Georgia was favored by 30+ points and nearly covered. Often that’s a recipe for a lot of empty seats that clear out early on. But the combination of a night game and the first SEC game in front of an unrestricted Sanford Stadium crowd since November of 2019 led to the kind of engaged and raucous home crowd you’d expect for a game against Auburn or LSU. Most of all, it was fun. Of course it’s easy to let loose when the outcome isn’t in doubt, but that was only part of it. Big scoring plays are fun. A suffocating and athletic defense is fun, and it’s easy to make noise for a defense that has a pretty good shot at making your jaw drop. Fans even entertained themselves during long television timeouts. There might’ve been a few eyerolls at the wave going around the stadium in the second half, but both the team and the crowd were having fun. You couldn’t really say that during the tight mudfights that defined many 2019 home games. The limited crowds of 2020 could only do so much. It was probably the most enjoyable home game since Georgia broke the Tech option at the end of 2018.

I was glad to see so many stuck around to light up Sanford. For the 2019 Notre Dame game, the lights and the spectacle were the story. This time the spectacle was the backdrop to the party on the field and in the stands. Exuberance over simply being back had a lot to do with it, but that would have faded quickly had the game settled into 2019-style trench warfare. The team gave the fans plenty to cheer about, and the fans appreciated and recognized a team with a chance to do something special.

Cleanup crew

So much has been said about Georgia’s defense this season (and deservedly so!) that I just want to focus on one area: resiliency. We saw it in the opener against Clemson. Clemson’s best starting field position came from two Georgia turnovers, and the Tigers could do nothing with it. Even the series following Daniels’ interception that left the Tigers in field goal range went backwards. The first half of the South Carolina game also tested the defense’s resiliency. They were caught unprepared during a substitution and gave up a big early pass play. A Stetson Bennett interception gave the Gamecocks the ball in the red zone. Georgia wasn’t especially good getting off the field on third downs. But they didn’t allow one mistake to become another. Field goals weren’t going to keep South Carolina in the game.

Two minutes of “WTF?!?”

It’s tough to explain either team’s approach at the end of the first half. Georgia seemed content to run out the clock with three straight running plays despite good field position and a full complement of timeouts. South Carolina could have taken a nice defensive stop and a two-score game into the locker room set to receive the second half kickoff. Shane Beamer called timeout to get possession of the ball with under a minute left and no other timeouts remaining. Jake Camarda once again executed a perfect punt, and Ameer Speed downed it inches from the goal line. That might’ve been a clue for South Carolina to cut their losses, but the coaching staff doubled down by trying to hit a big play from the endzone. Jalen Carter and Jordan Davis charged through the line to blow up the play, and Nolan Smith prevented the quarterback from reaching the ball back across the goal line. A decent kick return after the safety reignited the Georgia offense, and the Dawgs managed the final 30 seconds well to set up a field goal. Podlesny was able to knock through a confidence-building attempt, and Georgia extended their lead with five points in the final minute of the half. Any edge South Carolina might’ve had with Georgia stalling at the end of the half was gone, and Georgia picked right back up after halftime by generating two turnovers and short field touchdowns to blow the game open.

  • Third downs played a big role in the game. South Carolina came into the game among the nation’s leaders in third down defense. Yes, the level of competition has to be considered, but only giving up two conversions through two games is still impressive. Georgia had few problems moving the chains: the Dawgs were 9-for-12 on third down. That mattered most on Georgia’s third scoring drive. They converted three third downs in the series, and all three were six yards or longer. The first conversion was Kearis Jackson’s first reception of the season. Hed showed some nice veteran skill to understand exactly how many yards he needed.
  • Third downs were one of the few shortcomings of the Georgia defense. South Carolina converted nearly 50%, and it was on Kirby Smart’s mind as he went into halftime. Two of South Carolina’s longer first half pass plays came on third and long.
  • Those long gains through the air were about the only negatives to take from the game. Georgia’s defensive backs had done well through two games, but their performance – especially isolated in man coverage – was a top preseason concern. We can expect teams to continue to test that coverage – if they have the time for those plays to develop.
  • On the other hand, lateral plays to stretch this defense just don’t work. South Carolina tried a QB keep on their first snap. Nolan Smith snuffed it out for a two-yard gain. Another QB keep following Bennett’s interception might’ve scored against many teams. Nakobe Dean sprinted over to make the stop. We’ve all see what Channing Tindall does against these plays. There’s just too much speed up front. If anyone is going to get this defense, it’s going to have to be vertically.
  • Nolan Smith *and* Adam Anderson are having their Lorenzo Carter seasons. Two top prospects have developed into dangerous every-down players after a couple of years learning the ropes.
  • If anything slowed down Georgia’s fast start, it was the decision to pull a red-hot J.T. Daniels for the third series. I have nothing but good things to say about Bennett and what he did against UAB, but any non-medical reason to sit Daniels at that point just doesn’t make sense. Georgia’s offense only had one other touchdown drive in the half after the substitution, and it took the safety to really kickstart things again.
  • Daniels of course was fantastic and demonstrated a great understanding of his receivers by hitting the deep passes in stride. If he had some off moments, it was on the “Bennett plays” that had him roll out and throw on the run. A rollout near Georgia’s goal line on which he threw back across his body was especially awkward.
  • It wasn’t quite the showcase for the running game that we saw in Columbia last season, but the Georgia rushing attack continues to come along. 184 yards, however they come, isn’t a bad day at the office. Cook finished off the first drive with a patient explosive run. White turned Kendrick’s interception into points with a pair of powerful blasts up the middle. Milton emerged as the team’s leading rusher. The success is still inconsistent, and that goes along with an offensive line that’s still in progress. We had wondered if this stretch of games would allow the team to experiment to find more effective line combinations, but there doesn’t seem to be a shakeup coming.
  • Does the emergence of Brock Bowers explain some of Georgia’s downfield passing success? Many of Todd Monken’s plays involve options at different levels, and Bowers has given life to the intermediate passing game. Add in some credible play-action, and defensive backs have a lot to think about. Do they cheat up on the run, do they pay attention to Bowers – Georgia’s leading receiver, or do they keep an eye on the receivers streaking downfield? Reminder – Darnell Washington is about to be added to the mix.
  • Downfield blocking also seems to be coming along. Cook had a few more successful plays to the outside thanks to solid blocking. A needless penalty on Robinson wiped out one of the better Cook plays. If Georgia can prove to be dangerous in the short screen or underneath passes, it opens up yet another level of options for Monken.
  • G-Day hype is a running joke among Georgia fans, but Adonai Mitchell might be the exception. Besides the highlight of the long touchdown reception, he also made several tough possession-type catches to sustain drives. That’s a fairly complete skill set just three games into his college career. Not many have benefitted more from early enrollment and the return of a complete offseason program.
  • South Carolina’s Kevin Harris was the SEC’s leading rusher in 2020. Georgia held him to 31 yards and under 2 yards per carry. South Carolina had a single run over 10 yards. No team has had much success running on Georgia yet, but that strength will be tested soon. After Vanderbilt, Georgia heads into a three-game stretch against some physical and explosive backs.

Post Georgia 10 – Clemson 3: You are enough

Thursday September 9, 2021

Finding explosiveness from a limited arsenal

The disappearance of explosive plays from Georgia’s offense became a big story in 2019 and was a large contributor to the offense’s fade. This was from my writeup of the 2019 Notre Dame win:

(Fromm) was 11-12 in the first half. He also had 59 yards passing at halftime – a subpar 4.9 yards per attempt. Of Georgia’s 11 completed passes in the first half, only two went for more than 10 yards. 5 of the 11 – nearly half – went for 3 yards or less.

Sound familiar? J.T. Daniels’ 4.5 yards per attempt and 135 yards against Clemson might have been a troubling callback to 2019 for Georgia fans eager to see an offense capable of competing in the shootouts that have come to define high-level college football. Saturday’s win more closely resembled the defensive struggles of the 2010 era. When you’re trying to scratch out a win over a perennial playoff participant, you play to your strengths. For Georgia those strengths were a dominant defensive front and a running game tough enough to control field position and close out the contest.

In 2019 an inexperienced group of receivers and an unimaginative offensive system allowed defenses to pack the line of scrimmage without consequences. Receiver personnel reared its head again in Charlotte. Injuries have gutted the Georgia receiving corps leaving several of its more experienced and proven members sidelined. Clemson didn’t have to stack the line – a unit with Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy doesn’t need to. The Tigers were able to sag in coverage, give Georgia short-yardage plays, and take away explosive plays.

When you lack explosive plays, you have to string together a lot of plays to sustain drives and end up with points. That increases the chances of something going wrong. Georgia’s offense was effective in one regard – they usually weren’t too quick to exit the field. The easiest way (other than a turnover) to handicap a high-performing defense is to keep putting them back on the field. Georgia managed only two three-and-outs in the game and had four drives of 8+ plays. Yes, more points need to come from those drives, and shorter drives are fine if they involve high-EPA plays that lead to points. In this game it was significant that the defense was able to stay fresh. Take a game like Auburn 2019: Georgia’s defense started well en route to a 21-0 lead. But 5 of 6 second half Georgia possessions were three-and-out, and a gassed defense had to hold on for dear life until Travon Walker’s game-ending sack.

I’m more convinced that the lack of output had much more to do with injuries and personnel than gameplan or creativity. Daniels was sacked early in the fourth quarter as Van Pran and Ericson left Myles Murphy unblocked. Had the play developed, McConkey was breaking open down the sideline on a wheel route, and Daniels was clearly winding up to deliver the knockout blow. It was a clever play marred by execution on the line. The plays are there. Will the players be?

The vision we all have is that the offense will round into better form as key players return from injury and the offensive line finds its optimal lineup. That assumes though that there are no further injuries or that those who do return will be back at peak performance. Ratledge’s injury reminds us that injuries will continue to be a fact of life throughout the season. Kirby Smart pointed out that Jermaine Burton, one of the seemingly healthy receivers with some experience, missed quite a bit of practice time dealing with his own injuries. That’s kind of what I was getting at with this post – just because we see someone out there and cleared doesn’t mean that they’re in top shape and able to perform how we remember them performing. I’m sure we all have expectations for how Blaylock or even Washington will look once they return to the offense. It might be wiser to accept things as they are and ask how more production can be coaxed out of the players that are available. The idea of a high-performing offense can’t depend on the promise of a certain player or players returning at an unspecified time at a given level of fitness. Georgia must work with what it has.

Several things can be true:

  1. Clemson returned a lot of talent from the defense rated #8 by SP+ last season.
  2. Georgia was missing several key receivers and had to reshuffle the offensive line early in the game.
  3. Those who did play had some costly execution errors that prevented bigger plays or longer drives.

Georgia will face many good defenses this year but it should be a while until they see a unit as complete and talented as Clemson’s. The return of the injured receivers is out of anyone’s control. What is in the team’s control is the execution of those who see the field. Kirby Smart has explained time and again the role of perimeter and downfield blocking in turning decent gains into explosive plays. That need won’t change regardless of who’s available, and the output we expect from Georgia’s offense depends on it.

The defense – the beautiful defense

The defense’s strength starts up front, and it’s telling that sacks and pressures were distributed among nearly every position – defensive tackles, ends, inside linebackers, and outside linebackers. Dan Lanning made optimal use of the athleticism and experience of his front seven. The source of pressure from play to play was unpredictable, and those not involved in pressure dropped back into locations that made reads difficult. Even those, like Wyatt, who didn’t record a sack were active batting down passes and making sure Clemson didn’t establish any kind of running threat.

If there was a standout among a unit that itself was a standout, it was Jordan Davis. It’s often enough for defensive linemen to occupy lanes and let linebackers make the tackles. Davis cut out the middleman and recorded two tackles for loss and a sack of his own. On other plays, his penetration led to someone else’s stat. To me Davis’s most impressive play might’ve been tracking down the Clemson quarterback on a delayed read. Davis fought through the line and had the agility to change directions to bring the quarterback down from behind. Those are plays we see linebackers or defensive ends make.

The linebackers made sure they wouldn’t be overshadowed by the defensive line. Nearly all of them came up big. Nolan Smith started strong with a physical pass rush that led to a sack. Channing Tindall’s speed made you gasp as he sprinted to make a cross-field tackle and made it clear that going wide wasn’t an effective counter to Georgia’s inside domination. Nakobe Dean’s constant presence in the backfield and relentless blitzing up the middle reminded me of the adjustments Georgia made in the Rose Bowl. People have wondered whether Dean’s junior season would resemble Roquan Smith’s stellar 2017. The way Dean was used in this game won’t slow those comparisons.

It wasn’t a surprise – maybe more of a relief – to see the line and linebackers play as well as they did. That was the expectation with so much returning talent and experience. It was a different story for the secondary. The attrition from the 2020 squad left Georgia’s defensive backfield with enough uncertainty to raise questions whether it would hold back the potential of the defense. Georgia fans have to be pleased with what we saw from the group. Clemson had a single explosive pass play, but Georgia’s defense largely kept the action in front of it and tackled well to prevent short gains from becoming something bigger. There was an expectation that the front seven would help the secondary, but in this game it went both ways. Several of Georgia’s sacks and pressures took time to develop, aided by solid coverage downfield.

There were some pass interference calls – Ringo in particular panicked and nearly tackled his receiver on a pass unlikely to be caught in bounds. Those were mistakes of aggression and sometimes 15 yards is preferable to giving up a long pass play. Only a few times was a defensive back simply beaten. Kendrick bit on an inside move and gave up the longest pass play of the game on a third down.

Georgia’s defense was magnificent in a way that looks sustainable week to week. Speed, talent, awareness, athleticism, and all of the other attributes that stood out don’t depend on the opponent. It’s not the best plan to lean on the defense that much – just a single blown coverage can change the game and give the opponent all it needs.

  • Other than Christopher Smith’s textbook pick-six, the defense’s biggest moment followed Daniels’ interception. Georgia followed a short gain with two sacks to take Clemson out of field goal range and take away any momentum Clemson might have gained from the turnover. Georgia turnovers twice gave Clemson a short field, and the Tigers were able to do nothing with their best field position.
  • The anticipation to see Gilbert and Washington on the field overshadowed another impressive spring performer: Brock Bowers. Bowers had a standout debut as Georgia’s reception leader and was trusted to block against a top-quality defensive front. He made his share of mistakes, but that was a high-pressure environment in which to debut, and he handled it.
  • The knock on Latavious Brini has been speed keeping up with slot receivers. His coverage skills shone in the short-yardage red zone area where speed becomes less of a factor. He made consecutive pass breakups in the end zone and, most importantly, did so cleanly without drawing a flag.
  • Zamir White left no doubt as to his alpha status as the back you want closing out a game. There was something special though about the few times Kendall Milton got loose.
  • Jake Camarda was a highlight of a so-so special teams unit. Consistency had been the only thing holding him back, and each of his punts was a positive for Georgia. Five of six punts landed inside the Clemson 20, and he did well to get his last punt off when Clemson applied pressure. Camarda enabled Georgia to establish and maintain a decisive field position advantage.
  • Arian Smith and the other gunners were key to downing those punts. Smith had time to visit the concession stand before the ball arrived.
  • Other special teams – less so. Podlesny’s missed 36-yard FG wasn’t close. Tough to fault Milton for getting hit on the bounce while he was engaged with a block, but there could be better communication to clear the area. I understand why you’d want a hobbled but sure-handed Jackson fielding punts, but he didn’t present much of a threat in the return game when field position meant so much.
  • Limited tight end depth meant that offensive tackle Xavier Truss was called into a service as an extra blocker.
  • The player perhaps hurt most by Georgia’s perimeter blocking woes was James Cook. He is most valuable getting into space and is a frequent target on sweeps and screens. Too often there was a defender waiting to meet him.
  • J.T. Daniels wasn’t asked to do much, and he didn’t. The defense bailed him out on the interception. Another pass to Bowers in the back of the endzone into tight coverage made you hold your breath. A third-down completion before the missed field goal might have gone for more yards had the pass been more accurate. It wasn’t a bad game, but it also wasn’t a statement game that kicked off a Heisman campaign. The usual outlets can shelve those pieces now. Winning the game was the important thing, and Daniels largely stayed upright with quick, short passes before the Clemson pass rush got home.
  • So much of the pregame conversation had to do with the stakes in the game and its playoff implications. It was assumed that either team could take a loss and still control its own fate by winning out. I’m not so sure that’s the case for Clemson. It’s likely they won’t face another ranked team during the regular season. They desperately need to face a highly-ranked opponent in the ACC championship, but a North Carolina loss on Friday hurt those chances. With a 12-1 record and no wins over ranked teams, Clemson’s resume will be on par with better G5 teams rather than other P5 champions.

Post 21 questions for the 2021 Georgia football season

Friday September 3, 2021

The 2021 offseason has had its moments. Injuries have affected the depth chart both in the short term and long term. The transfer portal giveth and taketh away. Players may now be paid for their name, likeness, and image, and many are learning how to juggle those obligations with their usual coursework and team responsibilities. But compared with 2020 when the season itself was in doubt, Georgia’s past eight months have been about as steady as can be expected.

The narratives are clear: Georgia is a consensus top five team behind a fearsome front seven on defense, a deep pool of tailbacks, and an established starting quarterback. Clemson and Florida stand out as the toughest games on the schedule, but the Bulldogs are once again overwhelming favorites to win the SEC East. That’s the baseline expectation. Whether they can take an additional step and win the SEC or return to the playoff is much less clear.

1) Will we have a normal season? We looked forward to the 2021 season as a return to normality, tailgating, and full stadiums. That seemed a given as recently as the early summer. We enter the season with cases spiking and hospitals strained across the SEC footprint – constant reminders that the pandemic is still very much ongoing. Vaccinations fortunately have made the risk calculations different from a year ago. Plans and attendance policies for a normal season remain unchanged, but anecdotally some fans are reconsidering attendance and travel plans. Ticket demand for certain games hasn’t been strong, and there could be a number of reasons ranging from the quality of games to economic factors to health concerns to pleasant memories of a 2020 season spent on the couch. Teams will face an updated set of rules in 2021 in terms of testing, quarantine, and distinctions for those who were vaccinated. We shouldn’t see the wholesale cancellation and postponement of games we saw a year ago, but will we see any team have to forfeit a game because they are unable to field a squad?

2) Do we appreciate how different things are this year? Georgia’s quarterback stability is night and day from a year ago. Without an organized spring and offseason, a new offensive coordinator had to install an offense with a new starting quarterback. Then that quarterback opted out just before the season. His replacement wasn’t up to the job. The heralded transfer wasn’t ready yet. Georgia had to turn to a former walk-on, and he performed well enough to keep Georgia in contention in the SEC East. Now Georgia has a returning starting quarterback, a returning coordinator, and a complete offseason and spring. That’s no guarantee for success, but it’s also less likely that we’ll see the desperate grasping at straws that shocked us all at Arkansas a year ago. There’s no reason not to be ready.

3) Does Georgia have its elite quarterback? After Georgia beat Clemson in 2014, the fortunes of the two programs diverged. The two paths can roughly be traced to quarterback play. We saw the debut of Deshaun Watson in that 2014 game, and the Tigers have produced two first-round QBs since with each having a solid 2-3 years at the helm. After 2015 Georgia improved its QB recruiting, but production has been hit-or-miss as two top-rated prospects transferred out. The story of college football over the past couple of years has been quarterbacks putting up stunning numbers in creative and aggressive offenses. J.T. Daniels showed enough in a handful of games in 2020 to give hope that Georgia finally had its guy – and a system in which he can shine.

4) Do we underrate Georgia’s areas of concern? By this point we’ve heard it all. Yes, receivers are banged up. Yes, the offensive line is in flux. Yes, Georgia lacks experienced depth in the secondary. Once we internalize all that, it’s easy to move on to the next thing to worry about. We knew that receivers and tight ends were depleted entering 2019, but we didn’t figure that the passing game would all but disappear as the season wore on. The quarterback position should have been a bigger red flag in 2020, and we were banking on big improvement from Jamie Newman for no reason in particular. Sometimes a weakness really is a weakness, and there’s no need to dig much deeper than that when they show up in games.

5) What stats will tell the story in 2021? The decline of the offense in 2019 showed up most clearly in the explosiveness numbers. On the other side of the ball, havoc rate has become the calling card of disruptive defenses. This year we can add two stats: net yards per play (YPP) and expected points added (EPA). YPP is simple – how many yards are you gaining (or giving up) per play? If you want to compete for a national title, it had better average out to around +2.5 YPP. EPA is a little more complex, but it attempts to assign a point value to every play. Big plays get you closer to scoring points, so they have higher EPA values. A one-yard run (or worse, a lost-yardage play) is going to have a tiny (or negative!) EPA value. Is the defense as effective with an overhauled secondary? Is Monken succeeding at opening up Georgia’s offense? Tracking these two stats and comparing them against Georgia’s peers should give us some answers.

6) How many offensive line combinations will we see? Clemson has one of the best defensive fronts in the nation, so it’s unlikely that Georgia will use an untested player at a critical position like left tackle. But Georgia’s optimal lineup might have Jamaree Salyer inside, and there are capable – though inexperienced – tackles in the pipeline. An injury to center Warren Ericson has opened the door for Sedrick Van Pran. After the Clemson opener Georgia has about a month of games that afford experimentation and evaluation.

7) How useful is tailback depth? No question – Georgia is loaded at tailback. That was the case last season, and now a healthy Kendall Milton is added to the mix. The problem is that you can only play one at a time – usually. That will help to limit wear-and-tear, but it also creates challenges – or opportunities – for coaches to get the most effective players on to the field. At the same time, depth can create a temptation to pull a player on a roll. The depth and versatility of Georgia’s tailbacks will be a test of creativity. We saw Cook score on a long pass at Alabama lined up wide. Others have strengths in the passing game. Most of us are anticipating a more open offense this year and go right to Daniels and the receivers, but the depth, experience, and talent at the tailback position has to make this group essential to Georgia’s 2021 plans.

8) Can anyone replace George Pickens? Georgia has talent at receiver. Jackson is an underrated veteran. Burton had an impact freshman season. Smith has explosive speed. Mitchell opened eyes during spring. Fingers are crossed for Blaylock’s eventual return. None might be as individually gifted as Pickens was, but collectively most roles can be filled. There are options for speed, size, hands, and possession. Many have had the complete offseason to work with Daniels and Monken, and the timing of the injury to Pickens at least gave the team time to prepare without him.

9) What should we expect from the tight ends? The promise of watching teams defend Darnell Washington and Arik Gilbert at the same time was a huge tease. Washington could and likely will contribute, but it could be October before that happens. We saw a good dose of 12 personnel in the spring game, and it was enticing to see Todd Monken deploy multiple tight ends. The absence of Gilbert could open things up for Brock Bowers who had an impressive spring. Bowers, like Gilbert, could line up wide and still give Monken some different options using 12 personnel. Fortunately John FitzPatrick returns from a preseason injury to give the position some veteran stability, and Brett Seither is due to contribute. I don’t anticipate Monken putting this position on the shelf while we wait for Washington to heal.

10) Can Jordan Davis stay healthy? His return for a senior season was a huge boost to Georgia’s defensive front. If you look at some of Georgia’s tougher losses of the past three years (Texas 2018, South Carolina 2019, and Florida 2020), Davis was on the sidelines. That’s not to say that Davis’s presence would have meant a Georgia win, but Georgia has only lost two regular season games (LSU 2018, Alabama 2020) in three seasons when Davis played.

11) Can Adam Anderson become a three-down player? Does he need to? A big part of Azeez Ojulari’s ascent into the first round a year ago had to do with his development into a player Georgia wanted on the field in most any situation. Georgia’s depth along the defensive front is impressive, but there are still times when you just want your best 11 out there. Anderson has made a name as a pass rush specialist lining up all over the formation, and the preseason hype has been dizzying with possibilities for Anderson to contribute everywhere from a hand-down pass rusher to star. It reminds me somewhat of people dreaming up ways to use James Cook on offense. Anderson’s athleticism and potential are staggering, but he’ll be most valuable for Georgia (and at the next level) if he, like Ojulari, can find a role that keeps him on the field.

12) Is Devonte Wyatt underrated? Jordan Davis deservedly gets a ton of attention as the anchor of Georgia’s defensive front, but Wyatt’s decision to return for a 5th year established Georgia’s line as one of the nation’s best. His combination of speed and size makes him a difficult challenge for offensive lines and forces offenses to pick their poison when it comes to double-teaming he or Davis. You’ll often see Wyatt described as “disruptive”, though learning to control his athletic gifts and aggressiveness will be what makes his senior season special.

13) Is Nakobe Dean set to take off? Dean has been an impact player since his arrival in Athens, but he’s now drawing national attention. Many have pointed out that Roquan Smith didn’t become a superstar until his junior season. Dean spent much of 2020 playing through a torn labrum but was still one of Georgia’s defensive leaders. In good health and with a dominant defensive line in front of him, Dean has both the talent and the environment in which to follow Roquan’s meteoric rise.

14) Who will lead the secondary? Georgia missed the experience of Richard LeCounte following his midseason injury in 2020. Christopher Smith was thrust into a larger role in the absence of LeCounte, and he and fellow safety Lewis Cine are two of the more veteran members of the secondary. Both starting cornerbacks could be newcomers – Kelee Ringo and Derion Kendrick. Georgia has had that steadying influence in the defensive backfield since J.R. Reed stepped up in 2017, and LeCounte inherited that role last season. Now it will likely turn to Cine and Smith to see the big picture and captain the unit on the field. Don’t forget that the defensive backs also have a new position coach. Communication, confidence in assignments, and quick adjustments will have to be sorted out before the season kicks off.

15) Can Jake Camarda find consistency? Georgia’s punting has been in the upper third of the SEC in both average and net punting yardage for the past two seasons. The one thing though that’s plagued Jake Camarda has been the untimely shank. We’ve seen it as recently as the last game against Cincinnati – a 4-yard punt in the first quarter gave Cincinnati possession on Georgia’s 42-yard line, and that favorable field position led to the game’s first touchdown. We know what Camarda is capable of, but eliminating those costly shanked punts should be the next step in his development.

16) Will Kearis Jackson break a kick return? He’s been close: Jackson had a kickoff return of 56 yards and a punt return of 52 yards in 2020. His decision to return certainly helps Georgia’s receiving corps, but a dependable veteran return man is invaluable in special teams.

17) Will Georgia have to deal with hostile crowds? Most (all, really) of Georgia’s interesting games will happen away from Sanford Stadium. We know all about Clemson, and no one will overlook the Florida game. Yes, there were some fans in the stands last season, but less than half the team has played in front of a packed SEC crowd. I’m of the belief that Georgia would have had a much tougher time pulling out the 2020 Arkansas game in front of a full hostile crowd. Even J.T. Daniels, who played for USC at Texas in 2018, will get a new experience in Charlotte. One game where the road crowd might make the matchup more interesting is at Auburn. Of course they’re rebuilding under a new head coach, but they’re not Tennessee. Georgia hasn’t had an easy time at Jordan-Hare since 2012.

18) Is there any possibility of a slip-up at home? You never say never after the 2019 South Carolina game, but Georgia should be heavy, heavy favorites in its home games. South Carolina is in disarray. Arkansas overachieved in Pittman’s first year and will be pressed just to get back to that level. Kentucky is the best team on Georgia’s home schedule, and there’s always a chance of a Homecoming sleeper after a trip to Auburn. Missouri is always a wildcard and should be improved in Year 2 of a new coach. That game comes on the heels of an emotional game in Jacksonville that could decide the SEC East. Don’t sleep on UAB – they got votes in preseason polls. Navigating the weak home schedule will be a test of focus.

19) What or who will be the unexpected story of 2021? No question that Stetson Bennett was the story of 2020. He saved Georgia at Arkansas and then led the Bulldogs to convincing wins over two rivals. Yes, he didn’t have enough to lead Georgia to a division title and was eventually supplanted, but he wasn’t even considered part of the plan leading up to the season. In 2019, transfer WR Lawrence Cager emerged as Jake Fromm’s favorite target in big wins against Notre Dame and Florida. Georgia doesn’t have a ton of uncertainties in 2021, but there are still opportunities for players to step into the spotlight. The defensive backfield is an obvious area waiting for someone (or several someones!) to emerge. A young receiver could have the impact Jermaine Burton had a year ago. Hopefully the surprises in 2021 are fortuitous ones.

20) Will Georgia have a swagger? We remember how the 2017 team became a machine that used the “revenge tour” motivation to steamroll its rivals en route to a conference title. Even that team didn’t find its legs until the Mississippi State game. The team had to come to terms with the loss of its starting quarterback and survived the trip to Notre Dame by the narrowest of margins. The flea-flicker to start the MSU game showed a bit of brashness and confidence in a freshman quarterback, and the team never looked back. I’m not saying the 2021 team needs a trick play to get going. The team should be more confident this season with a more stable quarterback situation, and the quarterback often sets the tone for a team’s identity (see Burrow or Lawrence or Mayfield). It will miss the edge a player like Pickens brings. That confidence needs to be in place from the start – Georgia has the talent to compete with Clemson or anyone, but there has to be the belief that they can win these games.

21) Should there be a greater sense of urgency? I agree with Kirby Smart that it’s more a question of “when” and not “if” Georgia reaches the top. That outlook is reassuring, but it can also serve to take the focus off the present. We remember Smart saying after the national title game that “Georgia isn’t going anywhere.” He was right – Georgia has remained a top 10 program, recruited well, and has lost just four regular season games since 2017. But Georgia also hasn’t won a conference title or returned to the CFB playoff since. For that “if” to become “when”, a lot of things need to go right within a season, and Smart will need to find ways to get the most from the talent he has recruited. It’s comforting that all of the eggs aren’t in the 2021 basket just as they weren’t in 2018, 2019, or 2020. But there are reasons why those years didn’t become “the year.” If 2021 is going to have a different outcome, Georgia will have to avoid the missteps that sank recent seasons. Overhauling the offense after 2019 showed a willingness to change and improve, and we’ve yet to realize the payoff from that evolution. It might not happen in 2021, but we should also admit that there are very few reasons why it shouldn’t.

Post Are you hurt or are you injured?

Sunday August 29, 2021

It’s trite and obvious to point out that injuries will affect a team. Most of us remember the horror of October 2013 as a slew of injuries derailed a team flying high after wins over South Carolina and LSU. Most often, though, we think about those injuries in binary terms: is a player available or out? After 2-3 (or 4-6) weeks, they’ll be back. In worse cases, they’re out for the year.

Georgia’s a little banged up right now, and that makes them just like most any other program during preseason camp. Tykee Smith and Darnell Washington have joined a list that includes several receivers and starting center Warren Ericson. Many of these players will return in time for the opener; game week has strong healing powers. Others, like Smith, Washington, or even Pickens, will have recovery periods that will linger on into the season.

Returning to the practice field though doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s no longer an issue. Certainly Georgia’s outstanding medical staff wouldn’t clear anyone in obvious risk of serious injury, but there’s a lot of gray area between being unable to participate and a clean bill of health. Most injuries aren’t as cut-and-dried as an incapacitating ACL tear, and there are many varying degrees of “OK.” Few players are going to feel fresh as a daisy during the physical grind of camp and the season. For these players then the season becomes a struggle of managing their condition(s) while remaining available to play. It’s a constant reassessment of the famous “hurt vs. injured” standard.

You often don’t hear about it until well after the fact. Just about every offseason has a story (or several!) like this one:

Georgia inside linebacker Nakobe Dean underwent surgery to repair his torn labrum this spring….Dean revealed he actually played through the labrum issue for the majority of the 2020 season.

Dean probably looked just fine to you and me as he continued to develop into one of the best inside linebackers in the nation. But clearly he wasn’t in top form, and he probably wasn’t the only one. How players cope with these minor injuries affects not only their ability to perform; it also affects how coaches manage lineups and situations. Ericson might return in time for the season, but the true extent of his recovery will have a ripple effect up and down the line. Blaylock might be cleared to practice or even play, but can he ever perform at his pre-injury level? Turf toe is one of those injuries that seems minor but can linger for weeks, and it could hamper Arian Smith’s top-level speed.

Georgia’s situation isn’t unique – the rare exceptions are those teams and players not dealing with a spectrum of injuries. Limited playing time or even absences might not make much sense in the moment, and coaches aren’t always forthcoming with their reasons. It’s worth keeping in mind that 1) an injury isn’t gone when a player returns to the team and 2) many injuries we’ll never know about until well after the fact, if at all.

Post Georgia’s 85 for 2021

Friday August 6, 2021

As Georgia begins preseason camp today, I like to get my head around the composition of the team, and this format helps. The impact of the transfer portal and the exceptions made for the pandemic have made it tough at times to keep up with who’s coming and going, but things have settled down now. Georgia welcomes 20 true freshmen and three transfers to complete its 85-man roster.

Georgia’s personnel issues (if you can call it that) stand out in a format like this. At defensive back, there are as many newcomers as upperclassmen. You can see why the transfers of Tykee Smith and Derion Kendrick were so important. Brini, Speed, and Poole had all seen playing time but had yet to claim a starting job heading into their final season. The other options at cornerback were all largely unproven freshmen. We’ve penciled in Kendrick as one starter, and Smith would be considered a starter at star in a nickel defense. That still leaves one spot up for grabs (not to mention the rest of the depth chart), but you’re not as terrified about playing someone like Ringo or Kimber as you’d be if they were paired with someone much less experienced.

It’s a similar story on the offensive line. The return of Salyer and Shaffer for their senior season saves Matt Luke from dipping deeper into a 10-man pool of true and redshirt freshmen. Truss could still figure in the left tackle picture, and it would be encouraging to see the 5 starters come from among the 7 linemen with at least two years’ development in the program. Still, the offensive line tilts very young with 10 of 17 players as true or redshirt freshmen. The depth of the line and the flexibility of coaches to deal with injuries depends on this talented but raw group.

The hopes for a high-performing offense will lie with a young fleet of receivers and tight ends. There are no seniors among the group. With Pickens out indefinitely, Jackson and FitzPatrick are the only upperclassmen among the tight ends and receivers. This roster shows how Georgia is set up for a couple of exciting seasons with Gilbert, Burton, Arian Smith, Adonai Mitchell, and others having several years’ of eligibility remaining.

We also see how the team’s recruiting needs align with what’s going on out on the recruiting trail. The anticipated early exit of Daniels creates the need for depth at quarterback, and Georgia has a commitment from Gunner Stockton. Lovasea Carroll’s move to defensive back created a gap at tailback, and Branson Robinson will help there. Davis and Wyatt returning on the defensive front is huge for 2021, but they’ll leave a big hole next season especially if Travon Walker exits. Georgia has two defensive line commitments for 2022 and is on the hunt for more. Kirby Smart won’t be caught again without talent in the defensive back pipeline, and there’s a big group of seniors due to leave after this season. The same is true at linebacker where four seniors will depart and both juniors could be early exit candidates.

It almost goes without saying these days that the bulk of the roster (54 of 85) is freshmen and sophomores. Smaller senior classes are the norm with transfers and early draft entrants taking their toll on the roster. The team isn’t as young as it looks, though. 24 of the 54 freshmen and sophomores have redshirted, giving them at least one year of development in the system. All but four of the incoming true freshmen enrolled for spring semester. There’s no substitute for game experience, but coaches won’t have to worry about acclimating a large group of newcomers when preseason camp opens.

(Players are listed alphabetically 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.)


4 Years

3 Years

2 Years

1 Year

QB (4)

Brock Vandagriff *

Carson Beck [R]

J.T. Daniels

Stetson Bennett

RB (5)

Daijun Edwards

Kendall Milton

Kenny McIntosh

Zamir White

James Cook

TE (5)

Brock Bowers *

Darnell Washington

Ryland Goede [R]

Brett Seither [R]

John FitzPatrick

WR (11)

Jackson Meeks *

Adonai Mitchell *

Ladd McConkey [R]

Justin Robinson [R]

Arian Smith [R]

Jermaine Burton

Arik Gilbert

Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint

Dominick Blaylock [R]

Kearis Jackson

George Pickens

OL (17)

Dylan Fairchild

Amarius Mims *

Micah Morris *

Jared Wilson

Austin Blaske [R]

Broderick Jones [R]

Cameron Kinnie [R]

Chad Lindberg [R]

Tate Ratledge [R]

Sedrick Van Pran [R]

Warren McClendon [R]

Xavier Truss [R]

Clay Webb [R]

Owen Condon

Warren Ericson

Jamaree Salyer

Justin Shaffer

DL (14)

Marlin Dean *

Tyrion Ingram-Dawkins *

Jonathan Jefferson *

Warren Brinson

Jalen Carter

Nazir Stackhouse

Zion Logue [R]

Tymon Mitchell [R]

Bill Norton [R]

Travon Walker

Tramel Walthour

Jordan Davis

Devonte Wyatt

Julian Rochester

LB (13)

Chaz Chambliss *

Jamon Dumas-Johnson

Smael Mondon *

Xavian Sorey *

MJ Sherman

Rian Davis [R]

Trezman Marshall [R]

Nakobe Dean

Nolan Smith

Adam Anderson

Robert Beal

Channing Tindall

Quay Walker

DB (14)

Javon Bullard *

Lovasea Carroll *

David Daniel *

Nyland Green *

Kamari Lassiter

Jalen Kimber [R]

Kelee Ringo [R]

Lewis Cine

Tykee Smith

Latavious Brini

Derion Kendrick

William Poole

Christopher Smith

Ameer Speed

Spec (2)

Jared Zirkel [R]

Jake Camarda





Post Not asking too much

Thursday August 5, 2021

When we tried to have a realistic look at J.T. Daniels’ Heisman chances, it boiled down to this conclusion: “Daniels would have to obliterate the Georgia record book and do things never before seen in Athens.” The high water mark for a Georgia quarterback remains Aaron Murray’s 2012 season: nearly 3,900 passing yards, 10.1 yards per attempt, and 36 passing TD. The stats of recent Heisman winners suggest that Daniels would either have to become a dual-threat quarterback capable of rushing for 1,000 yards, or he’d have to leave Murray’s 2012 passing stats in the dust. That doesn’t just mean break the records: Joe Burrow threw for nearly 5,700 yards and 60 TD in 2019. Mac Jones threw for 4,500 yards in 2020 in a shortened season – and didn’t win the Heisman.

Along the same lines, Blutarsky looks at the imperative to raise Georgia’s net yards per play (YPP). He clearly sets out the target for a team with playoff aspirations: “you’d better create a net YPP of 2+ if you want a realistic shot at the CFP (the four-team version, that is). And if you want to win, you’d better wind up north of 2.5.” What does that mean in practical terms? “Georgia probably has to bump its offensive YPP up a full yard over the 2020 number to make the CFP field this season, assuming it can maintain its defensive excellence.” Maybe a bit more context will help: “A 7.21 ypp would be the best in the program’s history.”

So there’s the simple challenge for Tood Monken and J.T. Daniels: perform at a level never before seen at Georgia. That sets the expectations fairly high, and it raises some interesting questions. What if Daniels matches or just barely surpasses Murray’s 2012 numbers? It would be a superlative season for a Georgia quarterback, but would it be seen as a disappointment? What if Georgia’s defense, and its secondary in particular, slips a little and yields, say, another half yard or so per play? Would we notice an appreciable gain on the offensive side? Would the pressure instead be on Monken to offset the difference and still come out with a net increase?

It’s good to put some concrete numbers behind our expectations beyond straight wins and losses. We recognize the need to modernize and increase the output of the offense to compete at the highest level; it’s why Todd Monken is here. Metrics like YPP, EPA, success rate, and explosiveness are important benchmarks to follow that let us know how things are going. We know, based on those metrics, what a successful team and offense looks like. If we want and expect Georgia to contend at that level, watching those metrics will be the equivalent of the world record line superimposed over an Olympic swimming or track event – is Georgia on pace, out ahead, or falling behind where they need to be?

The encouraging news is that while these numbers might be unprecedented at Georgia, several other teams have found multiple ways to get there. Georgia’s program bests, unless you’re talking about something like Herschel Walker’s output, represent good seasons but aren’t untouchable and should be surpassed if the talent and offensive system are what we claim they are.

Post SEC vs. the field

Sunday August 1, 2021

Blutarsky has often identified college football’s regional passion as one of its unique characteristics worth preserving. That point has always resonated with me, and it’s not hard to see the downside of an enjoyable fall distilled down and repackaged into a nationwide “who’s in?” made-for-television event.

The conference expansion dominoes that fell across the nation a decade ago established conferences less as regional blocs and more as convenient revenue-sharing arrangements. The Big 12 stretched from west Texas to West Virginia. The SEC added a midwestern school to its East division, and Colorado found a home with the Pacific coast teams. Air travel meant that the rough geographic borders that used to constrain conferences were anachronisms, and conferences could be structured more around markets, eyeballs, and media rights. And as Blutarsky also points out, this train left the station long before 2012: the addition of South Carolina and Arkansas to the SEC in 1992 that facilitated a lucrative conference championship football game showed the way.

Texas and Oklahoma are coming to the SEC, and this pretty much says why:

That’s a ton of cash. (Though, for context, it’s still around 15% of the new NFL media rights deal. Why stop now?) What’s more important is that it creates an entity on par with the NCAA itself. That doesn’t mean the SEC’s revenues will equal the revenue of all other conferences combined. The NCAA is a distinct organization and gets its revenue from things like media rights for the NCAA basketball tournament. It does mean that the SEC, along with its media partner, will have sufficient clout to influence not only the competition on the field but also how college football is presented, marketed, and discussed.

Those focused on football have wondered how the addition of Texas and Oklahoma will shift the competitive balance of the SEC. How will the conference be organized? Georgia has played Clemson more often than A&M since the Aggies joined the SEC. Adding teams under the current model would be ridiculous. I do like the pod system many have outlined for football. (I can’t imagine a good system for sports like baseball though that would rotate through the conference often enough.) We can expect changes to scheduling, and it’s not as if Georgia will be playing Texas and Oklahoma every year.

The bigger impact will come nationally as the rest of the college sports landscape will have to deal with an expanded SEC as a bloc. The Pac-12 is already rattling swords about the SEC’s effect on the playoff expansion to 12 teams. The Pac-12 itself might not have much to say about it, but we can expect coalitions to form that will attempt to check the SEC. Those coalitions might be formalized through the expansion and realignment of other conferences, or they might remain informal and shifting alliances depending on the moment. No one wants to answer to the SEC, and there are several schools and conferences that might – might – be effective opposition if they can find common ground.

Those who appreciate the regional roots of college football might be amused that one effect of SEC expansion will be an even greater focus on southern football. Even as the playoff and media coverage package the sport for a national audience, the product will have a decidedly southern bent. It’s a big geographic footprint, but much of what happens in college football will be defined by what happens from Oklahoma to Florida. Certainly there’s enough good football outside of the conference to remain relevant and competitive, but it’s not hard to see that the narrative each season will begin as which outsider can take down the SEC’s best. Expansion might even lead us to rethink what it means to be a conference champion. Surviving and emerging as the SEC champion would, to many, be as impressive and more important than winning a national title against the best of the rest.

Whether it’s previewing each season’s football national title race or pondering the future of college sports, the addition of Oklahoma and Texas will raise the same question: “the SEC or the field?”

One more small thing…another effect I expect from this expansion will be to shift the SEC’s center of gravity westward. By that I mean six of 16 schools will lie on or west of the Mississippi. Oklahoma and Texas have just a bit more presence and clout than Missouri or even Arkansas. The SEC’s Nashville-Atlanta-Birmingham center can’t help but feel that tug. One consequence I expect will be the rotation of the SEC football championship game. Even a more permanent event like the SEC baseball tournament could be forced to rotate. There are at least four major domed stadiums in the west (New Orleans, Dallas/Arlington, Houston, and St. Louis) capable of hosting major events, and Dallas seems the most obvious choice to host the occasional SEC championship. You can be sure they’ll try.

Post Happy NIL Day

Thursday July 1, 2021

Like it or not, the landscape of college athletics changed overnight. Laws in several states went into effect protecting the right of college athletes to earn money from their name, image, or likeness. The NCAA, pushed to the limit, adopted their own interim policy which will serve as a stopgap until legislation catches up. That day may never come – Congress is finding it difficult to find consensus, and we might just be left with a patchwork of state laws.

NIL is perhaps the cleanest solution the schools could hope for: NIL money isn’t paid by the schools, there aren’t employment issues, and there should be fewer Title IX issues. Athletes are now allowed to get what they can get from their personal brands just like any other person. Direct payments from the schools would have been much messier, brought along all sorts of regulatory questions, and cut out a large share of the NCAA membership who are barely solvent. The “Olympic model,” which is basically NIL, has been circulated for well over a decade. Schools and the NCAA could have been out ahead of this issue, but instead we have a last-minute acquiescence to look the other way while an inconsistent framework of state laws kicks in.

Georgia fans have been especially tuned into the NIL issue since the suspensions of A.J. Green and Todd Gurley. The draconian NCAA regulations and Georgia’s passive willingness to accept them had many of us beating the drum for NIL reform years ago. This new era won’t remove the bad taste left by those episodes; all we can do is say that it’s about time.

It will be fascinating to see what comes of this change. There will be an early rush as the market shakes out and determines value. Some will do well; others won’t. Some will build successful brands and set themselves up for a secure future, and others will squander the opportunity. Some will build brands that only tangentially have to do with their sport, and now they can monetize that following. Will there be locker room dynamics? Maybe – who knows? There will be some hilariously bad and cringe-y endorsements and branding. We’re here for all of it. That’s the way markets work, and none of it is reason enough to delay these rights to student-athletes.

Since there’s money involved, there’s also bound to be plenty of fraud and shady characters ready to prey on under-informed players and their families. Schools might not be facilitating the deals, but it’s in their interests to have a supporting role. Resources should be available to student-athletes to help them identify legitimate endorsement deals and stay within legal and regulatory guardrails. Many schools, including Georgia, have introduced such partnerships and programs, and hopefully more will follow. Businessman and NFL veteran Marshall Newhouse tweeted some good advice: get help to understand the state laws and school/NCAA rules that apply, thoroughly vet anyone who approaches you with a deal, and don’t lose focus. “The opportunities will come the more you shine.”

I’m particularly interested to see if and how recruiting changes. Do prospects have more incentive to remain closer to home where name recognition and brand value might be higher? Will prospects play fan bases off of each other to determine the most enthusiasm for their personal brand? Will we eventually see a decision based on what amounts to a legal bidding war? Fans are admonished to avoid communicating with or interacting with prospects on social media, but would it be a different story if they knew that buying that 5* prospect’s merchandise might tilt the scales? None of these prospects are beholden to a specific school’s compliance department yet – will this market be even more unregulated?

There are a million angles to NIL because it really is a fundamental change to the model of college athletics. Schools and the NCAA will still make a ton of money – these deals aren’t coming out of their vaults. Now, finally, the people who generate much of that revenue will get a taste of it and begin to realize the value that’s been there all along.

Post Framing the preseason Heisman hype

Thursday June 24, 2021

Excitement about the potential for the 2021 Georgia offense can only mean one thing: offseason talk about J.T. Daniels’ Heisman chances. The strong finish by Daniels and the Georgia offense, the number of weapons returning, and a full and normal offseason with Todd Monken have generated tremendous anticipation. With record-shattering offenses at LSU and Alabama in recent years, the hope is that Daniels could lead Georgia’s transformation into the next powerhouse offense. But would that mean a Heisman for Georgia’s QB1?

I can probably just link to this post from 2019 when we were having similar discussions about Jake Fromm’s Heisman chances as a senior. Things didn’t go well for Fromm or the offense in 2019, but the larger points stand. If you’re not a dual-threat quarterback, you must put up ridiculous numbers to be considered for, much less win, the Heisman.

How ridiculous? Not many pocket passers have won the Heisman over the past 15 years. Sam Bradford won in 2008 with only 47 rushing yards. Were Baker Mayfield and Jameis Winston considered pocket passers? Neither put up big rushing numbers but had decent enough mobility to make plays on the ground. In their Heisman seasons, those quarterbacks threw for over 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns. Bradford and Winston won before the RPO era and the unreal offensive production we’ve seen in recent years. Joe Burrow threw for nearly 5,700 yards and 60 TD in 2019. Mac Jones threw for 4,500 yards in 2020 in a shortened season – and didn’t win the Heisman.

The gold standard for quarterback production at Georgia remains Aaron Murray’s 2012 season: nearly 3,900 passing yards, 10.1 yards per attempt, and 36 TD. That was a productive and balanced offense that took Georgia to the cusp of the national title game.

Back to Daniels: Brent Rollins of UGASports.com framed the answer correctly in this video: “yes, but.” When you look at the stats of recent Heisman winners (or even those invited to New York) and compare them against Murray’s Georgia-best 2012 season, you realize what has to happen. Daniels would have to obliterate the Georgia record book and do things never before seen in Athens. As Rollins observes, it would also require Georgia to run a lot more plays, and a higher percentage of plays must be passes. The deep and talented backfield is going to put an upper limit on how pass-happy Georgia becomes. That’s not to say Georgia can’t and won’t air it out – we saw that evolution begin to take place last season. But if an opponent presents a soft rushing defense, Smart and Monken are just as happy winning with 16 pass attempts and 332 rushing yards as they did at South Carolina last year. They’d be foolish not to, and it would take an intentional shift in offensive philosophy to blow past Murray’s benchmark and put up modern Heisman numbers.

Rollins notes that the Clemson game could swing how the nation views Daniels. A big performance and perhaps a game-defining moment on that stage would make Daniels (or Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei) an early favorite, and it might be possible to maintain that edge with a consistently solid showing the rest of the year. After all, Trevor Lawrence never cracked 4,000 yards in a season and finished second in the 2020 Heisman voting. An unremarkable showing against Clemson, even with a Georgia win, would mean that Daniels would have to stand out in games against lesser opponents with fewer people watching. He’d either have to make it up with volume (outrageous stats) or with a defining performance in the few marquee games left on Georgia’s schedule (Florida.)

Lawrence’s career reminds us of another development to watch. After the Clemson game, Georgia should be favored in its remaining games. Any SEC game could be competitive, but you’d still expect some big leads and lopsided wins. If Georgia is in a number of tightly-contested games this year, Daniels probably isn’t having a Heisman type of season. If the Georgia offense does click, you can expect to see the playcalling shift towards the capable backfield in the second half. What’s more, the trio of Beck, Bennett, and Vandagriff could be doing the handing off late in games. Clemson so dominated the ACC that Lawrence watched his backups close out a lot of games. That hurt his numbers in terms of the gaudy stats Heisman voters like, but it kept him fresh and available for multiple runs into the playoff. I think that’s a tradeoff most Georgia fans would accept.

Post Impressive track and field hire focuses attention on Georgia’s facilities

Wednesday June 16, 2021

Marc Weiszer outlines the process and events that aligned to announce the accomplished Caryl Smith Gilbert as Georgia’s new track and field coach last weekend. The importance of the move isn’t lost on anyone – she’s Josh Brooks’s first hire, and she’ll be the first female head coach of a male team at Georgia. Smith Gilbert is looking for a step up in competition in the SEC, but it had to take more than just a new challenge to entice a championship-winning coach to leave one successful program for another.

Yes, Georgia – or most any SEC school – has the resources to outspend other programs for staff and facilities. But the trick is actually committing to put those resources to work. All of the parties in Smith Gilbert’s hire downplayed the facilities concerns that led to friction with the outgoing coach, but I think we can be certain that there were more than vague assurances made about Georgia’s future investment in the track program.

How can we be so sure? To get an idea of what Smith Gilbert was used to in terms of support, have a look at this. That’s a $16 million track renovation spearheaded by Smith Gilbert involving a significant private fundraising effort. The Spec Towns Track might be a nice neighborhood gathering place in Five Points, but it isn’t the showpiece of a multi-million dollar capital campaign. The common constraint at both USC and Georgia is the “landlocked” nature of their existing track facilities leaving little room for expansion. Georgia, though, does have options outside of the central athletics complex. It’s reasonable that a coach of Smith Gilbert’s standing would have to feel confident in Georgia’s willingness to put its resources to work.

We know that Georgia lacks a master plan for facilities, and Brooks revealed that developing such a roadmap is a priority this summer. “We’re going to take a deep look this summer into the next five to seven year plan for…all facilities,” Brooks said. “Softball, baseball, everything.” (It’s interesting and encouraging that baseball – another “landlocked” facility – would receive attention just a few years after a $12 million renovation to Foley Field.) Brooks was caught in a tough spot by not inheriting a long-term facilities vision, and that reportedly strained the relationship with Petros Kyprianou. But Brooks had to anticipate that the facilities question would come up while trying to attract a replacement for Kyprianou. Even if a more comprehensive master plan isn’t ready yet, Brooks knew about the pending change long enough to at least come up with a coherent and acceptable answer. The hiring of Smith Gilbert indicates that he was able to do so.

The hiring of Smith Gilbert was a strong first move by Brooks. She’d be an impressive addition under any circumstances, but it was especially noteworthy after the messy PR that followed the inability to retain Kyprianou. In a way, it strikes the same tone as Kirby Smart’s knack of having a bit of good news ready to go on the heels of a setback. The facilities issues raised by Kyprianou were legitimate (and, to be fair, were mostly out of Brooks’s control), but this announcement has done a lot in a short time to change the conversation. If a title-winning coach in a good spot has faith enough in Brooks’s vision and leadership to move across the country, maybe there’s hope.

Post “It’s crazy to think we could make a living out of this.”

Friday June 4, 2021

When most of us over a certain age think about NLI endorsements, we think of the star quarterback doing ads for the local car dealership. Those types of deals will surely come, but Blutarsky highlights a vector for income that might be more appealing (and effective) for college athletes: social media.

Just as social media has disintermediated so many other industries, individuals on social media can build and monetize a large number of followers on their own. Simply allowing student-athletes to share in the opportunities realized by others in their peer group will be a major benefit of NLI policies and laws. Sponsorships and endorsements are part of that, but some have even built their own personal brands. For many, the opportunity to cash in on that brand might be during college. To take an extremely local and specific example, think about Rodrigo Blankenship being able to cash in on the “respect the specs” brand during his time in Athens.

The social media vector could be especially important for female student-athletes. Gender inequity has been a concern raised (whether in good faith or not) about NLI income, but often that’s viewing it through the lens of the QB/car dealership endorsement. Several female student-athletes have large social media followings, and those followings are often independent of the success or revenue potential of the woman’s sport.

David Hale wrote a piece earlier this spring illustrating how this might work.

A new study from Temple University’s School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality Management found the potential for NIL revenue, on average, was actually greater for female college athletes than men, and athletes outside the revenue sports of football and men’s basketball could still cultivate valuable brands.

He features twin sisters on the Fresno State women’s basketball team. Their team went 17-11 last season and makes about $2 million in revenue. But the twins have over 2 million followers on TikTok, and they alone “could have a potential combined income of more than a half-million dollars annually.” Hale also mentions Olivia Dunne, “a freshman gymnast at LSU, whose nearly 5 million combined followers on Instagram, Twitter and TikTok make her one of the most potentially valuable brands in college sports.”

Every student-athlete won’t have millions of social media followers just as every member of the football team won’t get the car dealership deal. NLI is a wide-open market, and schools are quick to shy away from proposals to pool NLI income. You get what you can get, and some will be left out or limited to smaller “in kind” deal. It’s still better than what’s allowed now, and services are already popping up to help student-athletes establish and cultivate their personal brands. Access to the opportunities is what NLI is about and what has been denied student-athletes under the current system.

Post Jacksonville: pardon our dust

Friday June 4, 2021

It kind of went under the radar yesterday, but the Jacksonville Jaguars and owner Shad Khan announced plans for a $441 million development around TIAA Bank Field. The project would include a $120 million football facility requested by new coach Urban Meyer as well as indoor/outdoor practice fields. Currently the team’s facilities are co-located inside the stadium with an indoor practice field on the south (river) end of the stadium. The new facility would be on the opposite northwest end of the stadium (Lot R area).

The ambitious plan would also include “a Four Seasons hotel and residences, office space and renovations to the city-owned marina.” The plan must still face scrutiny from a labyrinth of city agencies and political bodies, and a similar proposal was tabled not long ago. If the plan survives the process, “the team and its affiliated real estate development company hope construction could begin by the end of the year and be completed in 2023.”

The most interesting bit was this:

The Jaguars hope the project is the first step in what they are calling the Stadium of the Future for Jaguars fans, meaning eventual significant renovations — or possibly even a brand-new one — within the next decade.

When we talk about the future of the Georgia-Florida game, the facility in Jacksonville is more or less taken for granted. The game didn’t miss a beat during the last renovation that added the large scoreboard and pool areas in the endzones. A more significant renovation or a rebuilt stadium could take the venue out of play for multiple years as it did in 1994 and 1995. The series returned to the new stadium in 1996 without much fuss. At that time there wasn’t much support for moving the game out of Jacksonville long-term. That’s shifted somewhat in the 25 years since, and Kirby Smart is among those who might welcome a change. Another return to campus (or another neutral site like Atlanta) in the near future could be an opening for those who favor changing the nature of the series.

Additionally, there might be another party at the bargaining table:

The proposal said that the team would sign a long-term lease of the facility and that the team — not the city — would be responsible for ongoing maintenance and operational costs.

The stadium is and will remain city-owned, and Georgia and Florida negotiate the terms of the game with the city. If the Jaguars take a more substantial stake in the operation of the stadium, they could have input on how much of the game’s costs are shouldered by the hosts.

Post Release the hounds

Tuesday June 1, 2021

Most of us have a date or event we’re looking forward to as a personal return to normal. It could be a trip, a family gathering, or even the season opener in Charlotte.

For Kirby Smart that date might be today – June 1, 2021. It’s been 16 months since Georgia and other schools have been able to host prospects. A 2020 post-signing day dead period was extended over and over, eventually spanning the 2020 football season and entire recruiting calendar. Recruiting was done virtually, and decisions were made in some instances without ever setting foot on campus. That all ends today.

Georgia still did well in its 2021 signing class with a consensus top five class with several impact players. But we know the real magic of Kirby Smart’s recruiting happens once kids are on campus, and that hasn’t been possible for the past year. Though Smart adapted as well as he could to the circumstances, it was tough to maintain the national reach and appeal he had cultivated in earlier recruiting classes.

Visits will begin immediately, and Smart is raring to go. There are almost too many visits on tap to keep up with, but suffice it to say that it’s going to be a very busy summer making up for lost time. Plans that have been in development for months will finally become reality as the top prospects of 2022 and beyond experience Athens and all that Georgia football has to offer. Beyond that, Smart will also introduce prospects to the nearly-completed $80 million football facility. It’s the latest improvement to bring Georgia’s facilities on par with the best programs in the nation and should only bolster Smart’s effective recruiting.

If that’s not enough, the one-time transfer exemption will continue until July 1, so we could still see some high-profile transfers for the 2021 team arriving in Athens.

Smart put it plainly last week: “It’s about to go crazy.” June should bring a frenzy of offseason football activity and kickstart a busy summer that leads us into a huge season opener in just three months.

Post How to survive at the bottom of the portal food chain

Thursday May 27, 2021

An interesting development in the world of college basketball:

First, it’s a bit silly to avoid playing a game because it might amount to a “free live evaluation” when extensive game film on just about any player is available with a few clicks. Doug Gottlieb makes a more relevant observation that just practicing at the facilities of a major program amounts to a recruiting visit during which a mid-major player can see how the other half lives. Even if you manage to avoid playing those games, talent will reveal itself. Then what?

Tampering isn’t permitted of course, and a player is off-limits until they enter the transfer portal. But the one-time unrestricted transfer is allowed for most sports, and as Nicole Auerbach explained last year, coaches in those sports have ways of contacting potential transfers through backchannels without making the in-person contact permitted by the portal. You can be sure that your favorite major football or basketball program knows how to gauge the interest of a player who might help them well before that player hits the portal.

One of Auerbach’s coaching sources suggested what might come next. Forget tampering or the portal – just plant the seed of a transfer before the player even enrolls. Call it outsourcing grayshirting:

One scenario I hadn’t considered was suggested by a soccer coach. He “can absolutely envision a world where high-major or elite Power 5 football coaches tell a recruit that he’s not quite good enough to play at School X right now, but he could be after a good season at School Y. Those coaches could maintain the relationship with the recruit and circle back a year later, eventually adding him as an up-transfer.”

This needn’t only be done at the individual player level. You wonder if a mid-major coach will lean into this idea and develop more overt, though still unspoken, relationships with larger programs. We’ve seen this with certain junior colleges for decades: academic non-qualifiers at a major program are “placed” in a favorable JUCO or prep program with the intent to re-recruit the player once grades are no longer an issue. The informal arrangement has risks: the player is under no obligation to sign with his original school, he may never make grades, or he might wash out as a prospect. But the system worked well enough that no explanation was required when a top prospect ended up at a familiar junior college.

Mid-major coaches might bristle at taking on the role of short-term player development. We can go back to Jake Spavital’s lament last week: “I can take the [high school] kid down the street that no one wants and no one offers who, after three years, you develop him into a good player, and he can leave.” But what if that coach becomes a participant in the process rather than a victim of it? Could you get better results if you have a steady stream of players who might be marginal prospects at major programs than you could relying on your usual recruiting pool? If transfers are a fact of life and the window of time for developing talent and winning with that talent is shrinking anyway, why not take a shorter-term outlook?