Since 1995 - Insightful commentary on the Georgia Bulldogs

Post “Georgia fatigue” is someone else’s problem

Tuesday August 8, 2023

If Georgia fatigue wasn’t here already, the run-up to last season’s national title game gave us a taste of what it would look like:

“In a sport as silly and glorious and random as college football, why not pick TCU?”
“It’ll make for a good movie when the Horned Frogs pull it off.”
“I’d love for TCU to finish this miracle run and upset Georgia, winning the most unlikely national title in the modern era…”

Earlier this summer Ari Wasserman of The Athletic wrote, “But it’s June and it’s fun to dream that this sport isn’t predetermined and boring. Maybe Georgia or Alabama or Ohio State won’t win it all.” I don’t mean to pick on Wasserman who does good work and had a bigger point to make in the piece. It’s amazing though that two titles after a 40-year drought suddenly makes another Georgia title run “predetermined and boring.”

We went from wondering after 2020 whether Georgia and Kirby Smart could get over the hump to being the boring default so quickly that it makes one’s head spin. Don’t we get to enjoy this a little longer than two years?

I’m sure there are a lot of football fans ready to see Georgia dethroned. We all remember how it felt watching Florida in the 90s or late 2000s or Alabama since then. We remember the plays and games in which Georgia came up just short, the coaches and players whose names became nasty epithets, and oh boy do we remember how the refs screwed us. We didn’t have the titles and the rings, so we stewed about the people and forces conspiring to keep them from us. We waited in futility, and so will they.

Now Georgia has the titles and the rings thanks to Kirby Smart, his staff, and the players who turned Georgia into a championship program. It’s time for the fans of other teams to be tired of Georgia and grumble about that damn Kirby Smart. I don’t blame them: they want what Georgia has, and we’ve been there. I don’t blame the media who think it’s more compelling if someone else wins. It’s their job to be interesting, and if they stick with the odds and the obvious picks, they’re just one in a crowd. Writers want compelling storylines. TV wants ratings. Was the blowout in the title game bad for ratings? Our TV sets were on for the whole glorious thing.

I really don’t care about fans (and especially the players and coaches) of the vanquished dwelling on their teams’ losses to Georgia. It’s not my problem if fans of rivals and peers are horrified to see Georgia finally break through. It wouldn’t be sports without a writer or analyst drumming up content with a reach that’s against the grain. It’s just a wrong opinion – no one’s going to prison, son.

No one is taking away those wins, titles, and memories. As a Georgia fan there’s nothing to answer for. Believe it – the whining, griping, and pleading for Georgia’s run to end will only get louder as the wins pile up. How we react to that is up to us. Arrogance and entitlement isn’t my style, and we know that humility is only one game away. But neither is there any need to be defensive or give one care about the outside noise. Every second spent giving oxygen to that is a second not spent basking in the most successful era in program history. Each win, each title, and each season is something to be relished.

Take to heart the sage advice of Javon Bullard when asked about his overturned targeting penalty in the Peach Bowl:

“I’ll be honest. That play happened in December, and that you’re still talking about it is really not my fault. We moved on from that.”

There’s another season just ahead with the opportunity to make this special run truly historic. Georgia’s moving on.

Post Making chicken salad out of an eight-game SEC schedule

Friday June 16, 2023

The addition of Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC in 2024 immediately raised questions about how they’d fit into an eight-game football schedule that was already stretched to its limits. We’ve learned some answers along the way. Would the SEC keep the divisional structure? (No.) Would a 16-team league mean a ninth game to improve its inventory for a new media deal? (No, for now.) Will traditional rivalries like Georgia-Florida be preserved? (Yes – at least that one.) With all of those questions answered, the big one left was the schedule itself.

Wednesday night the SEC unveiled its football schedule for 2024. Dates are still to be announced, but we know now which eight conference opponents each team will face. Here’s the league announcement, and here’s Georgia’s announcement.

I generally agree with the consensus: a nine-game schedule is still the better way to go, but this is about as good as it gets for an eight-game slate. All legacy teams will get a quick introduction to Texas or Oklahoma. Most decent rivalries seem to be preserved. (Will Georgia fans miss Missouri or, dare I say, South Carolina?) The tiered system guarantees the best programs will face several of their peers, and there are not many places for any contender to hide. The league’s TV partners should be pleased.

It’s a miss for Georgia if you expected that a better overall schedule would mean a more compelling home schedule. Tennessee and Auburn should be the highlights of the six-game home schedule, but they are teams Georgia hosts regularly. Three of the season’s most compelling and novel games (Clemson, Alabama, and Texas) will be played elsewhere. You’d hope that swings back around in 2025 (Oklahoma, perhaps?), and UCLA is set to visit in 2026. No question though that a season ticket package for games played anywhere but Athens would be far more attractive than the home games. In the past two seasons we’ve seen teams unexpectedly rise to create games of national interest in Athens (Arkansas and Kentucky in 2021; Tennessee in 2022). There won’t be many chances for a surprise with only three SEC home games, but that’s already a reality Georgia fans deal with every other year due to the commitment to Jacksonville. A nine-game schedule is really the only way out of that situation.

Divisions are gone but instead the conference split the teams into two tiers based on their conference winning percentage over the past ten seasons. It’s almost an NFL approach to scheduling. Georgia will face four teams from each tier. A program’s fortunes can change quite a bit over ten seasons, and you might not group teams like Tennessee, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, and Auburn the same based on a more recent history. It’s uncertain how often they’ll adjust the tiers – will it be adjusted annually using the same ten-year rolling average – but I like the implied tip of the cap to a relegation system. Will future coaching contracts include language or incentives about maintaining a program in the top tier?

This all looks good for 2024. It’s unclear how or if the format will persist into 2025 and beyond. Georgia’s announcement stated that “the 2024 schedule will be a standalone one-year schedule as Conference members continue to finalize a long-term schedule format,” so it’s possible that we’ll be doing this all over again next spring. Will this be an annual jigsaw puzzle, or will there be some attempt to put scheduling on some rules-based autopilot? Balancing rivalry games, reshuffling the tiers, and ensuring a decent rotation of other conference opponents might lead to less-attractive combinations in the future than this initial effort. The league punted on the nine-game schedule for now, but it’s still on the table, and adding another game could be enough reason to blow things up and start from scratch again.

One thing is for certain: no matter the format Georgia won’t be playing at Texas A&M.

Post Add stadium renovations to WLOCP uncertainty

Sunday May 14, 2023

A renovation of the Jacksonville stadium area has been something we’ve had our eye on for a while. Two years ago ESPN detailed plans for a $441 million development project surrounding TIAA Bank Field including a $120 million football facility for the Jaguars. That facility is under construction and should be ready in time for the 2023 NFL season. This facility is a prerequisite for something a little more relevant to us:

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.

We’ve learned more about those “eventual significant renovations” this week. Jacksonville mayor Lenny Curry discussed plans for those renovations on local radio and laid out a timetable that could leave the Georgia-Florida game without a venue in 2025 and 2026.

Worth noting is that the mayor’s office had to clarify “that nothing is set in stone and the time period could be subject to change from two years to one.” In other words these are still fluid plans that have yet to be finalized and approved at any level. According to Andy Staples “the Gators have been operating under the impression that if the stadium renovation goes forward, it would start in 2026 and make the facility unavailable in 2026 and 2027.” On the other hand a two-year schedule for a complete down-to-the-studs renovation might prove to be optimistic. So even the timetable is up in the air. The important takeaway is that some time later this decade the Jacksonville stadium is likely to be unavailable for the WLOCP.

The news comes as the future of the game in Jacksonville itself is uncertain. The current contract between Georgia, Florida, and the city of Jacksonville runs through 2023 with a two-year option to extend through 2025. The deadline to take that option is coming up next month, but there’s still another layer of uncertainty: the SEC has yet to finalize its future scheduling format when Oklahoma and Texas join the league in 2024. Everything from 8 vs. 9 conference games, the elimination of divisional play, and the preservation of traditional rivalries is on the table. We’d hope to get some resolution to that question at the SEC spring meetings taking place at the end of May.

So a lot could be happening over the next six weeks. If we get clarity about the future SEC football scheduling format, that could inform the decision to take or leave the option to extend the contract with Jacksonville. But even that option might need to be modified if the stadium won’t be available in the final year of the deal.

Ticket crunch

Stadiums are shrinking. New stadium projects emphasize amenities over capacity. When you’re competing against a large, crystal-clear HDTV picture in an air-conditioned room, that’s probably not a bad strategy. When studies find that “70 to 80 percent of ticket revenue comes from the first 15 to 20 rows,” the right move is to maximize the experience for those fans over cramming another 20,000 people into bleachers. Nashville will spend over $2 billion to build a new football stadium with a capacity around 60,000 – and they plan to bid on Super Bowls and CFP games! Buffalo is looking at a new stadium with a capacity between 60-63,000. Even the massive college football palaces are hopping on the trend: work at Bryant-Denny stadium to improve premium seating will lead to a modest reduction in capacity.

Georgia and Florida already accept a smaller venue by playing in Jacksonville (or any NFL stadium.) But even that capacity has shrunk. The current contract with Jacksonville requires requires a capacity of at least 82,917 fans. Anyone who’s been to the game is familiar with the temporary seats in either endzone that got them to this number. Of course attendance was limited in 2020, and in 2021 and 2022 capacity was reduced to 76,700 with a concession of $400,000 to each school. Why? Again, premium seating. The decision was made not to put temporary seats in the north endzone in favor of a premium seating area.

The nominal capacity in Jacksonville is currently 67,814 without the temporary seating. In 2019 attendance was 84,789. Now it’s 76,700. I don’t want to presume too much about a stadium redesign that hasn’t made it to blueprints yet, but if the Georgia-Florida game is that important to Jacksonville and its stadium partners there has to be consideration for capacity. That might put Jacksonville at odds with current stadium trends, or it might require a creative solution to allow for temporary expanded capacity in a design built around the premium experience.

We’ve already seen capacity come down by about 10%. A further reduction would make this game even less accessible and more on par with postseason games. It doesn’t seem all that crazy to suggest that by 2029 10-15,000 fewer fans will have access to this game than in 2019. (And that would be about 20,000 fewer fans than either home stadium could support.)

Jacksonville or Home-and-Home

It’s been clear for some time that the financial benefits have kept the game in Jacksonville. The schools pay relatively little in terms of operating and travel expenses for the game, and there’s a handsome payout split by Georgia and Florida. That combination nets each school quite a bit more than they’d gain hosting on campus every other year. So long as that remains the case any arguments about recruiting, fairness, or a trip to the Golden Isles will be overshadowed by the windfall.

Large payouts for neutral site games are nothing new. Georgia pulled down $5 million to play Oregon in Atlanta last season and will do so again playing Clemson in 2024. It’s not hard to imagine that a marquee SEC rivalry game like Georgia-Florida would command a premium price from any of the cities Staples mentioned. (Don’t forget about the expense side of the ledger either. We hear about payouts, but remember that it also costs a good amount of money to host a home game.)

If Jacksonville is unavailable for a couple of years, the assumption would be a home-and-home series like 1994-1995. Staples reminds us that what keeps the game in Jacksonville could just as well to apply to a number of sites in Florida and Georgia.

…if Jacksonville’s stadium winds up being unavailable for two years, don’t be shocked if the game gets shopped to Atlanta, Orlando, Tampa or Miami. And if one or two of those cities bite, don’t be surprised if the price for Jacksonville to reclaim the series goes up prior to 2028.

Even with the Mercedes-Benz stadium a convenient short drive away I can’t see any other neutral venue coming close to capturing the WLOCP vibe. That seems ridiculous to say when most people’s idea of a good Georgia-Florida trip is to spend as little time in Jacksonville proper as possible. There are many ways to experience the WLOCP, but it’s hard to see the culture of “all those places where all those Dawg people have got these condominiums for four days” being replicated in Atlanta or Orlando. I’m willing to make an exception for my preference for home games to continue the tradition of playing this game in Jacksonville, but no thanks to turning it into just another generic neutral site game in a reduced-capacity NFL stadium. Either keep it in Jacksonville or return it to the campuses.

Post 2023 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Tuesday February 28, 2023

Greenville, SC and its Bon Secours Wellness Arena will be a focal point of women’s college basketball for the next month. After a year in Nashville the SEC Tournament returns to Greenville for the first of a three-year stint. Later in March Greenville will be just one of two regional sites for the NCAA Tournament (the other is Seattle.) Fans of eight teams will descend on Greenville to determine two Final Four participants. It’s very possible that at least one, if not both, of those Final Four teams will be on the court in Greenville this week.

SEC women’s basketball, like any other college sport, has had to adapt to rapid and widespread changes across the college athletics landscape. Any fan of college sports has had to get comfortable with change. NIL deals finally allow student-athletes to share in some of the value they create for their schools and sports. Updated transfer rules allow rosters to be remade overnight. Thanks to Covid-era allowances for additional years of eligibility there are players on rosters you’d swear you remember from the 2000s.

The effects of these changes will be on display in Greenville. Over half of the programs have welcomed new head coaches in the past three seasons. The transfer portal giveth and taketh: nearly every team has key contributors plucked from the transfer portal. Other programs have found it difficult to replace departed players and have fallen down the standings. Rejuvenated programs at schools like Ole Miss and LSU have brought in record crowds and could alter the usual patchwork of fans in the stands for the conference tournament. Thanks to new NIL deals and increased media exposure star players are making an impact outside of the SEC and even outside of basketball.

One thing that hasn’t changed is South Carolina’s dominance of the SEC. The defending SEC and NCAA champions are still on top, and they might be even better than they were a year ago. South Carolina’s last loss? That loss came in this tournament a year ago as 7-seed Kentucky caught fire and cut down the nets. An SEC Tournament title was the only jewel missing from South Carolina’s 2022 crown. Claiming that missing title is surely motivation in Dawn Staley’s locker room, but Kentucky’s run was a reminder that there are no sure things in the postseason.

We’ve had a surprise finalist in each of the past two seasons: Georgia in 2021 and Kentucky in 2022. Is there a Kentucky lurking in the field this year? That Wildcat team had two-time SEC Player of the Year Rhyne Howard and got healthy in time for the end of the season. LSU has emerged this season as a top 5 program and national contender, but they were humbled by the Gamecocks in Columbia. The setting probably won’t be much less hostile just 90 minutes from the South Carolina campus, but LSU has a rematch on their mind. Can a team like Tennessee or Ole Miss spoil the rematch and make their own statement about the future of their program?

Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:
Wednesday: Bye
Thursday / Second Round: vs. Auburn 6:00 PM ET SEC Network
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs. LSU 6:00 PM ET SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: ~7:00 pm ET ESPNU
Sunday / Finals: 3:00 pm ET ESPN
Complete Bracket Here

The Field
(LY: last year’s finish, PS: coaches preseason projection)

1) South Carolina (16-0, 29-0) (LY-1, PS-1): Good news – they’re finally seniors! The class including Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, and Brea Beal arrived in 2019-2020 as the nation’s top group of signees, and they have lived up to the hype. They were among the favorites to win a national title in the Covid-shortened 2020 season. They won the title last season as juniors. If they do pull off the repeat in a few weeks, they’ll be up there with the dynasties at UConn and Tennessee in the 2000s.

Dawn Staley’s top-ranked team isn’t just built around those three decorated seniors. Eleven Gamecock players average at least 10 minutes per game. Only three average over 20 minutes per game. That’s right – starters for the best team in the nation might not play half the game. It’s not just a question of building a big lead and emptying the bench. South Carolina turns to its reserves early in games, and there are important roles up and down the lineup. Most any team could start a versatile forward like Laeticia Amihere. 6’7″ Kamilla Cardoso has come out of the shadows this season and was the key factor in South Carolina’s win over LSU. Raven Johnson leads the team in assists off the bench, an indication of last season’s top-rated signing class beginning to assert itself.

Few teams can come close to matching the interior presence of Boston, Cardoso, Amihere, and emerging freshman Ashlyn Watkins. The results of that size are plain: South Carolina’s 250 blocks lead the SEC by a margin of nearly 80%. They lead the SEC in defensive and offensive rebounding. South Carolina’s success is a numbers game. They turn the ball over fewer times than anyone in the SEC. They rebound and block better than anyone. Put it all together and opponents might get one shot per possession in their halfcourt offense, and that shot might well be blocked. That advantage means an opponent must be extremely efficient in their own offense or hope South Carolina is wildly inefficient on a given night.

It speaks to the quality of the game around the nation and in the SEC that a team this loaded has had a couple of close calls. Two teams have taken the Gamecocks to overtime. A handful of other teams have kept the final score within single digits and had credible chances to win. Those results might provide hope for postseason opponents, but they’ve also been valuable and humbling experiences that will prepare South Carolina for the competition they’re likely to face in March.

Is there a weakness? As a team the Gamecocks only shoot around 31% from outside. Cooke is the team’s top perimeter threat, and she and Beal have taken over half the team’s three-point attempts. The duo connects at roughly 40%, but they can be streaky. South Carolina shot 29% from the perimeter vs. Stanford (an overtime win), 22% vs. Mississippi St. (a 7-point win), 20% vs. UConn (a 4-point win), and 27% vs. Ole Miss (an overtime win). That’s only part of the story though; they’ve shot just as poorly from outside in several blowout wins. They have so many other ways to score. Even a missed three-point attempt isn’t the end of the world when you rebound as well as the Gamecocks do. If a team is going to keep it close and have a chance for the upset, they need South Carolina to be cold from outside, limit South Carolina’s size advantage on the offensive glass, keep turnovers to a minimum to make the most of their own possessions, and hope the rest of the Gamecock team has an average night. Easy, right?

2) LSU (15-1, 27-1) (LY-2, PS-3): It was a small surprise to see LSU ascend to second place last season. There’s no underestimating Kim Mulkey, but it was a big job to get the most out of a senior class that was used to mid-table finishes. Mulkey’s challenge in her second season was nearly as difficult: replacing that experienced core and getting several new pieces to mesh. The biggest piece was the transfer of forward Angel Reese from Maryland. Reese was already a decorated star and Third Team All-American at Maryland, but she’s taken her game and confidence to another level under Mulkey. There can be a debate about the league’s most outstanding player, but Reese is the reason why LSU took a step forward after losing so much from last season.

Reese’s supporting cast is a mix of newcomers and well-traveled veterans. LaDazhia Williams, another threat to score inside, is a graduate transfer from Missouri who began at South Carolina. Sharpshooting Jasmine Carson is another graduate transfer by way of West Virginia and Georgia Tech. High-scoring guard Alexis Morris transferred to LSU, her fourth program, last season and has had a big final season. Flau’jae Johnson has been an impact freshman with a McDonald’s All-American pedigree and is the team’s second-leading rebounder as a freshman wing. Freshman Sa’Myah Smith has come on during the season for frontcourt depth.

LSU rolled through their nonconference schedule without a loss, but they received criticism for the soft level of competition. That skepticism kept them from rising far in the rankings or early NCAA Tournament projections even with an unblemished record. But as conference wins began to pile up, LSU’s quality was harder and harder to ignore. They rose to as high as #3 before falling at South Carolina. Their strength of schedule might cost them a seed or two in the national tournament, but they’ll be expected to reach the finals in Greenville for a rematch with the Gamecocks.

The near-perfect record didn’t come without some shaky moments. LSU was challenged at home by Georgia and Arkansas and struggled at last-place Texas A&M. There seemed to be a pretty clear separation in class when they met South Carolina. LSU fans packing the arena to support this deserving team was one of the highlights of the season, but the Tigers will have to stand on their own now in a “neutral” arena likely to be full of Gamecock and Volunteer fans. They have the confidence and toughness to get it done, and Reese can match any team’s best player. It’s the rest of the lineup that will determine LSU’s postseason ceiling.

3) Tennessee (13-3, 21-10) (LY-3, PS-2): With the exception of LSU and Angel Reese the conference’s top winner in the transfer portal might be the Lady Vols. Rickea Jackson had been a star player at Mississippi State since she stepped on campus. Jillian Hollingshead showed tremendous potential at Georgia while battling knee issues. That incoming star talent added alongside a leader like Jordan Horston meant high expectations for Kellie Harper’s team. The Lady Vols had returned to respectability with consecutive third-place finishes, and there was hope that this would be the year for the program to take the next step. The Lady Vols were picked second behind South Carolina, and they had three players on the preseason all-SEC first team – more than the Gamecocks!

Those expectations took a hit when a central player was lost to injury for the second straight season. Last season it was Horston missing the stretch run. This season took a turn when imposing post Tamari Key was sidelined for the season with blood clots in her lungs. Fortunately Key’s prognosis is favorable, but her absence put extra pressure on Tennessee’s wings and guards. Even with Key Tennessee struggled with a difficult nonconference schedule. Tennessee entered SEC play at 8-6 with losses to some of the best teams in the nation. Things changed once conference play began: the Lady Vols started 8-0 in the SEC until LSU cooled them off. But Tennessee has had the same problem against both conference and nonconference opponents. None of their losses are bad; lots of good teams lose to UConn, Stanford, Indiana, and LSU. Good wins however have been hard to come by. Yes, beating Alabama and Ole Miss separated Tennessee from the pack. They improved on their 2022 11-5 conference record, had their best record in the SEC in eight seasons, yet here they are in third place for the third straight season. The Lady Vols are again one of the better programs in the SEC, and that’s progress from a couple of seasons ago when they risked missing the NCAA Tournament. They’ve yet to take that next step back onto the national stage. That could begin to change with a deep run to the SEC finals.

Rickea Jackson has been the impact transfer Tennessee needed. She leads the Lady Vols with nearly 19 points per game. Horston remains a steady leader and adds 15 points per game. It says a lot though that these two 6’2″ wings are also Tennessee’s leading rebounders. First, they play with tremendous effort. But without Key there’s really not a dominant post presence, and they’ve been uncharacteristically weak against teams with elite rebounders like LSU and South Carolina. Tennessee can also struggle to find consistent scoring from night to night apart from its two stars. Only three players – Jackson, Horson, and Tess Darby – score over 6 points per game, but seven players get between 4-6 points per game. Cobbling together those points and finding someone with a hot hand – maybe Darby or Sara Puckett or Jordan Walker on a given night – has been enough to propel Tennessee to over 77 points per game, and the typically stingy Tennessee defense has done the rest. To beat the top teams in the league though and advance to the finals Tennessee will need to find a third star to shine next to Jackson and Horston.

4) Ole Miss (11-5, 22-7) (LY-4, PS-5): The Rebels finishing fourth in 2022 after going winless as recently as 2020 was one of the biggest stories of last year. This season the story told by another fourth place finish is that Yolett McPhee-McCuin’s program has staying power. The loss of Shakira Austin to the WNBA has led to a more diversified team with multiple ways to attack. Angel Baker has stepped up as the team’s go-to scorer. Madison Scott took an other step forward in her junior season with a scoring average in double figures and over 8 rebounds per game. A pair of transfers – Marquesha Davis from Arkansas and Myah Taylor from Mississippi State – have been important additions at guard. Like Tennessee the Rebels lack the imposing post presence that Austin provided. They’ve had to have much more balanced scoring, defending, and rebounding especially around the basket. Ole Miss doesn’t shoot particularly well from outside, though Baker and Snudda Collins can and will take the shot. They do have a number of players who can hit the midrange shot, crash the offensive glass, and run in transition.

Toughness and intensity have been consistent calling cards of Coach Yo’s teams from year to year. They’re undersized but outrebound opponents by nearly 9 per game. Their tight man defense limits opponents to under 35% shooting and only 26% from outside. They’re middling in creating turnovers but are happy to force a bad shot, rebound it, and get off running to the other end.

The Rebels have also improved their results away from home. January wins at Georgia and Mississippi State got them off to a 5-0 start in SEC play, and a tight comeback win at Alabama on the final day of the season gave them the edge over the Tide for fourth place. Despite finishing in the top four for two straight seasons, national respect has been tough to come by for the Rebels. They remain unranked in the polls with a NET rating in the top 25. They came close to a signature win against South Carolina, but that statement against an elite team has eluded them. They lost to the two ranked teams they faced in nonconference play. A January win over then-#24 Arkansas looks less impressive by the day. Ole Miss has simply had to settle for being a damn good team that has just enough talent and effort to rise above the majority of the conference. That’s quite a reputation Coach Yo’s program has built in a few short years. What’s next?

5) Mississippi State (9-7, 20-9) (LY-10, PS-8): Things were bleak for the Bulldogs at the end of January. A pair of ugly losses to Ole Miss and Georgia dropped MSU to 4-5 in the league, and they were in need of a reset. The Bulldogs made the most of a bye week and emerged from the break to upset Tennessee. Mississippi State finished the season winning five of seven games, and that win over Tennessee was the tiebreaker that earned first-year coach Sam Purcell the #5 seed over two other 9-7 teams. Purcell’s energy has given new life to a program that fell on hard times after amazing runs to the Final Four. A recent loss at Missouri showed that the Bulldogs still haven’t quite shaken the problems of the first half of the season, but wins over Alabama and Arkansas were enough to force a tie with Alabama and Georgia. MSU’s February success has a lot to do with the improved play of guard JerKaila Jordan. Jordan is averaging around 17 points in February and, along with Ahlana Smith, gives the Bulldogs a pop from outside. The Bulldogs have also gotten a shot in the arm from the return of leading scorer and rebounder Jessika Carter after a year’s absence. MSU’s strong finish has solidified their place in the NCAA Tournament. If they make it to Friday’s quarterfinals, they’ll see if their improved play can be the charm in a third try against their in-state rival. Purcell, known as a skilled recruiter while at Louisville, would love to have the last word against Ole Miss after coming up short twice earlier in the season.

6) Alabama (9-7, 20-9) (LY-11, PS-10): The Tide made some noise in last season’s postseason with a convincing upset of Georgia and a run to the WNIT quarterfinals. They’ve exceeded expectations in 2023 and will make the NCAA Tournament after piling up wins over the bottom half of the conference. A January win at Ole Miss is their lone win over a team seeded 5th or higher, but you can’t fault them for taking care of business against most everyone else. Alabama had a chance to finish in the top four up until the last day of the regular season, but they enter the postseason with three straight losses. Pulling out of that slide might take a win over Florida, a team that beat the Tide just a week ago. The Tide have found success this year as the conference’s leading three-point shooting team with nearly 9 made three-pointers per game. They largely play four-out, one-in with Jada Rice making plays in the paint and a quartet of guards and wings able to shoot from outside or drive past defenders. Brittany Davis scores nearly 18 points per game, and there’s no question she’s the team’s offensive engine. Davis attempts nearly a quarter of the team’s field goals and three point attempts but also attacks the basket and heads to the foul line more than any other teammate. The attention that must be paid to Davis leaves Alabama’s other guards with good shots, and you almost have to do a second take at their percentages. Aaliyah Nye shoots 45% from outside. Point guard Hannah Barber shoots 48%. Megan Abrams and Loyal McQueen merely shoot in the 30s. The outside shooting has been less reliable down the stretch; Alabama shot 30% or lower in three of their final five games.

7) Georgia (9-7, 20-10) (LY-6, PS-9): As a coach you like to see a team play its best towards the end of the season. That’s just what new Georgia coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson is seeing from her Bulldogs. Coach Abe, like many first-year coaches these days, was both a victim of and a beneficiary of the transfer portal. Several key players and an entire top 10 recruiting class decided to leave Georgia during the transition. Abe responded by convincing her entire UCF signing class as well as three experienced members of the UCF team to follow her to Athens. She added three transfers from other schools and re-recruited four remaining Georgia players to stay with the program. Establishing her culture among players with such varied backgrounds has been a difficult and painstaking process. Georgia showed early signs of toughness with a win at Georgia Tech and comeback wins over Wisconsin and VCU. But there were also some disappointing losses in December, and the start of conference play was an eye-opener. Georgia struggled to a 2-5 start in the league. They had to come from behind to beat Florida and Kentucky, and a bad loss at Texas A&M all but sunk the season.

The season turned after the loss at A&M, and it turned on defense. Georgia’s 3-2 matchup zone and occasional press had its moments earlier in the season, but over the last half of the season things began to click much more consistently. Georgia finished the season winning seven of nine games including a five-game winning streak in February. In those seven wins Georgia allowed an average of 50 points per game with no one opponent scoring more than 61. Even in a pair of road losses to top 5 teams Georgia looked locked in. They took undefeated LSU to overtime in Baton Rouge and finished the season playing South Carolina closer than anyone had on the Gamecocks’ home court. Georgia’s defense has created 612 turnovers during the season (20.4 per game), and they lead the SEC in steals and turnover margin.

Offense improved along with the defense. UCF transfer Diamond Battles, Georgia’s leading scorer, took a few games to adjust to the physicality of the SEC. She is averaging 16 points per game over Georgia’s nine-game run and has broken 20 in each of the final two games. Battles isn’t the only player who improved down the stretch. Coach Abe likes to talk about players understanding and settling into their roles, and two of Georgia’s biggest role players come off the bench. Javyn Nicholson has been a physical reserve post player for several seasons but has developed a smooth midrange game to go along with impressive post moves. Nicholson averages 9.5 points per game on the season but has been in double figures in every game but one over Georgia’s final eight games. She’s also contributed on the glass with five double-doubles this year. Alisha Lewis leads Georgia in assists and three-pointers despite starting only four games. Lewis is often among the personnel on the court to close out games and hit the game-winner in Georgia’s home win over Kentucky. Audrey Warren, a Texas transfer, has had to expand her role at Georgia. She’s been a tough-nosed defender and rebounder for years but has been asked to do more on offense. Warren responded with 8 points per game and is Georgia’s second-leading three-point shooter.

Georgia’s biggest strength is also a weakness. They generate lots of turnovers but turn it over at a high rate themselves. Even that’s been improving. Georgia has turned it over 14.6 times per game over their final five games – nearly a two-turnover improvement over their season average. Foul trouble can also be a problem for Georgia. Georgia is blessed with depth at the post position, but potent scorers Brittany Smith and Malury Bates can take themselves out of games with fouls. The Lady Dogs especially need Smith available in the postseason. Earlier in the season Georgia was often plagued by long scoring droughts. Those have become fewer in frequency as Coach Abe better understood the combinations she needed on the court, but scoreless stretches can still be a problem. Georgia’s outside shooting relies primarily on three players – Battles, Lewis, and Warren – and the team is shooting under 30% from outside. The most effective offense has been to create transition off of turnovers or to attack the basket with guards and a deep rotation of posts and draw fouls.

Not many teams are playing as well as Georgia right now. They might not have the star power to pull off the deep run that Rhyne Howard and company did a year ago from the 7-seed, but Georgia won’t be an enjoyable opponent for anyone in this tournament. Georgia’s held their own in the league’s two toughest gyms, they have a coach used to having to win the conference tournament to keep a season going, and they have a deep and experienced roster finally playing well as a unit.

8) Arkansas (7-9, 20-11) (LY-8, PS-4): A second-straight eighth-place finish wasn’t what Arkansas expected at the start of the season or even in mid-January. The Razorbacks started the season 13-0 en route to a #17 ranking and began 4-1 in the SEC. A tough stretch at the end of January led to four straight losses including a trio of three-point losses. Another three-game losing streak in February was much more lopsided and suggested a team that had started hot but faded. A decisive win against Texas A&M to close the season at least stopped the losing streak and give the Razorbacks some confidence heading into the tournament. Arkansas still plays classic Mike Neighbors basketball and attempts more three-pointers than any other SEC team. Connecting with those deep shots has been the problem this year. Arkansas shoots less than 30% from outside. They might try to make up for it with volume, but the explosive scorers of their recent past aren’t on this team anymore. There’s a foursome of guards and wings who each attempted at least 124 three-pointers, but no player is shooting over 33.6%. Chrissy Carr has emerged as the top outside threat with Samara Spencer posting similar numbers. Makayla Daniels inherits the playmaker role and can connect from outside or drive to the basket and draw fouls. Forward Erynn Barnum is the team’s leading scorer and rebounder. Freshman Saylor Poffenbarger has been an important addition to Arkansas’ game inside the paint while also showing an outside threat. The relative lack of firepower has kept Arkansas from notching a win over the top half of the conference, but they do have a pair of wins over their opening tournament opponent Missouri. A top-20 recruiting class should help revitalize the Arkansas offense next season.

9) Missouri (6-10, 17-12) (LY-9, PS-12): Missouri also might seem a bit stagnant ending up where they finished in 2022, but they were better than expected after forwards Aijha Blackwell and LaDazhia Williams transferred. Missouri’s style hasn’t changed: they’re still among the league’s top three-point shooting teams and can slice apart defenses that overextend to the perimeter. Missouri started conference play 3-0, and wins over Alabama and Mississippi State have had them on the NCAA bubble for most of the season. Two losses to close the regular season might have dampened postseason hopes. While Missouri’s style hasn’t changed, their problem, like Arkansas, has been consistency. They lean heavily on forward Hayley Frank who is the team’s leading scorer and shotblocker. Frank also leads the team in three-pointers made and is second on the team in rebounding. That’s a lot to put on one player, and it’s gone badly a few times this year. Lauren Hansen can also get hot from outside but can be streaky – Hansen has gone over 20 points in four SEC games but has been held to 5 points or fewer five times. Mama Dembele has dealt with injuries but still leads the team in assists and can increase the pace of play when she’s in the game. Missouri has had to play a committee of players down low, and it hasn’t been as effective as the Blackwell-Williams combination.

10) Auburn (5-11, 15-13) (LY-14, PS-13): It’s not quite an Ole Miss type of rise yet, but Auburn made definite progress in year 2 under Johnnie Harris. The Tigers more than doubled their SEC win total in 2023, and they emerged from the bottom four with a season-ending win over Vanderbilt. Things started rough with six straight SEC losses, but Auburn broke into the win column with an overtime upset of Ole Miss. That win started Auburn’s first three-game winning streak in six years, but they finished the year losing five of seven games. With the exception of the Ole Miss win, all of Auburn’s wins came over the bottom 4. Auburn was also 1-7 in road games with the lone victory coming at last-place Kentucky. There’s no question that Auburn is improving, and learning to win away from home will be key to taking that next step. Forward Aicha Coulibaly and guard Honesty Scott-Grayson lead the Auburn attack averaging in double-figures and are complemented by 9 other players averaging over 10 minutes per game. Auburn plays an aggressive defense and is second in the league in steals. That aggression can lead to foul trouble, and Harris has to rotate post players to manage fouls. Both Coulibaly and Scott-Grayson are capable of huge nights scoring over twice their averages, but to hang with better teams they need help from players like Kharyssa Richardson or Sania Wells and impactful contributions from their post rotation.

11) Florida (5-11, 16-13) (LY-5, PS-6): Last season Florida finished fifth and reached the NCAA Tournament despite a coaching change just before the season and the departure of the team’s leading scorer. Kelly Rae Finley’s job as interim coach earned her the permanent gig. They haven’t been able to recapture that magic in 2023 and have slid back to the Wednesday play-in game. Injuries, most notably to Zippy Broughton, have tested the roster, and depth has been their undoing in several games in which Florida led or kept close early. Even as injured players returned to the roster wins have been tough to come by. Guard play is decent with KK Deans and Alberte Rimdal shooting nearly 40% from outside and Nina Rickards attacking the basket, but spotty post play has cost them. Jordyn Merritt, a key member of last season’s overachievers, was among the injured and has found it tough to get going. Florida did notch two quality wins at the end of the year over Arkansas and Missouri and might have knocked both programs off the NCAA Tournament bubble.

12) Vanderbilt (3-13, 12-18) (LY-13, PS-14): Shea Ralph had a decent debut last season leading the Commodores to four conference wins for the first time since 2018. Ralph wasn’t able to build on that modest success this year, and personnel is a big reason why. The Commodores carried just a nine-player roster this season after defensive specialist Jordyn Cambridge was lost for the season. Guard Caija Harbison has been the standout; she’s among the SEC leaders in points, assists, and steals. Harbison and Marnelle Garraud give the Commodores some scoring punch from the guard position, and Sacha Washington is the top post threat. Ralph’s team can put points on the board, but depth issues have shown up in rebounding and on defense. Opponents are scoring 71 points per game, shooting 45%, and outrebounding the Commodores by over 6 per game. Vanderbilt’s split series with Arkansas gave us two of the more entertaining lower-profile games in the SEC this year.

13) Texas A&M (2-14, 10-17) (LY-12, PS-11): For a while it looked as if Joni Taylor’s only SEC win of the year would come against her former team. A late-season win over Kentucky moved A&M out of the basement, and that accomplishment might be the highlight of their season. It’s been a long way down for A&M since winning the SEC regular season title just two years ago. The Aggies’ new coach has had a rough transition as she’s faced an overhauled roster, inexperience, and injuries. Taylor brought Georgia’s #7-rated signing class with her, and they’ve all had to contribute as freshmen. The top prospect from that group, Janiah Barker, missed a good chunk of the season with a wrist injury but returned just in time to lead A&M to an upset of Georgia. 5th-year forward Aaliyah Patty has been a constant through the injuries. The Aggies play the usual tough Joni Taylor defense, but scoring has been a big problem. A&M is a full ten points behind the next-worst team in points per game. They had a brief outburst against Georgia as Barker returned to beat the team she originally signed with, but teams have enough film on Barker now as the surrounding cast struggles. Another top-20 class is on the way in to provide reinforcements.

14) Kentucky (2-14, 10-18) (LY-7, PS-7): What a rollercoaster – or house of horrors – for the Cats over the past two seasons. They started the 2022 SEC season 2-8 before ripping off six straight wins. That momentum continued into the tournament, and the seventh-seeded Wildcats pulled the upset of the year with a win over South Carolina to claim the SEC Tournament title. This season’s Kentucky teams also started 2-8 in the SEC, but there was no Rhyne Howard and Dre’una Edwards to rescue them this time. They enter this tournament with a much different momentum: seven straight losses. Though there have been injuries to overcome largely this is a team that just hasn’t matched up talent-wise with the rest of the SEC. Replacing Rhyne Howard is a monumental task, and Kentucky lost a lot more from last season’s championship squad than Howard. The guard trio of Robyn Benton, Jada Walker, and Maddie Scherr give the Cats some firepower, but they struggle with production in the paint. Kentucky is near the bottom of the league in rebounds and turnovers, and coming up short in the possessions game is never a good combination. One of their wins was against first-round opponent Florida, so there’s hope for one last rally before the season ends.

Post Bobo – Take 2

Wednesday February 15, 2023

After three seasons heading up the Georgia offense, Todd Monken will head back to the NFL. It’s not a huge surprise given 1) Monken’s self-described journeyman status and 2) the interest with which he pursued NFL interviews over the past month. “I’m a vagabond,” Monken admitted in a pre-Peach Bowl interview that sounded almost like a farewell. He was also blunt about the nature of the job. “This is a business,” Monken said. That wasn’t said with a tone of dissatisfaction; it’s the reality for the majority of college coaches who come into their jobs without particularly strong ties to the school. Athens can get its hooks into you especially if it’s your last stop on the coaching carousel – just ask Georgia’s former head coaches. But even the appeal of Athens and the success of the Georgia program wasn’t enough to tie down a professional vagabond used to moving on to new opportunities.

Monken came to Athens in 2020 with a clear mandate to bring Georgia’s offense up to par with those of other national contenders. Disappointing postseason losses in 2018 and especially 2019 showed how far Georgia had to go relative to the teams it considered its peers. Record-setting offenses churning out top draft picks at LSU and Alabama suggested a new approach was necessary if Georgia hoped to break through. Monken began his renovation in the most difficult of circumstances. His first two options at quarterback washed out. The transfer hoped to be Georgia’s answer to the Heisman winners at LSU and Alabama couldn’t shake injury. The leading rusher was coming off two knee surgeries, and the receiving corps wasn’t especially deep. Oh – the installation of this new offense had to take place during a pandemic with no spring practice.

Georgia didn’t break through in 2020, but Monken showed flexibility and creativity by designing successful offenses around two very different quarterbacks. He could win with a run-heavy approach as at South Carolina or air it out against Mississippi State. Despite the uncertainty at quarterback that lasted the entire season (and then some), Georgia was able to find some building blocks around which Monken could construct a devastating attack over the next two seasons.

Three years is a fairly standard tenure for a successful high-profile coordinator. Dan Lanning was Georgia’s defensive coordinator for three seasons. It would have been disappointing but not shocking had Monken followed Lanning out of town after the 2021 national title. We know how this works: teams want to hire the coaches of champions, and we want a program that develops its coaching talent as much as it does its players. It was a pleasant development that Monken returned for an encore in 2022. He was not going to be a Georgia lifer.

Kirby Smart understood that reality and wasn’t caught off guard by Monken’s departure. Georgia immediately announced Mike Bobo as Monken’s replacement. Bobo of course served previously as Georgia’s offensive coordinator from 2007–2014 before leaving to become the head coach at Colorado State. He reemerged in unremarkable one-year coordinator stints at failing Auburn and South Carolina programs before joining Smart’s staff as an offensive analyst.

Bobo left Athens in 2014 at the height of his game. Georgia ripped off a three-year stretch from 2012-2014 averaging 40 points per game and easily finishing in the top 10 of offensive SP+. Bobo was a Broyles Award finalist in 2012 as Georgia became a national title contender. Aaron Murray became the SEC’s career passing leader. Todd Gurley, Nick Chubb, and Sony Michel ushered in a new golden age of Georgia tailback play. As Blutarsky put it at the time, “Bobo’s departure doesn’t come as a relief.” With Jeremy Pruitt’s abrasive style clashing with the rest of the staff and the program falling behind in resources and facilities relative to the SEC, Bobo’s offense was one of the more stable elements of the program.

It’s impossible to discuss Bobo without unpacking a lot of emotional baggage. But for a few years here and there Bobo has been associated with Georgia either as a player or coach since the mid-1990s. That time period covers a lot of ups and downs, and much of it fell squarely in the middle of Georgia’s 40-year title drought. Any player or coach from that era will bear the burden of missed opportunities, what-ifs, and even outright failures. Many Georgia fans will struggle with disentangling themselves not only from their opinion of Bobo from the early 2010s but also from their frustration with the Georgia program of the same time. That was plenty of time to develop a rich lode of playcalls or outcomes we blamed for Georgia coming up short – again.

Bobo might have left Athens as a hot commodity, but it hasn’t been smooth sailing since. His first three Colorado State teams finished 7-6. The scary emergence of an autoimmune disease disrupted his final two seasons at CSU and threatened his coaching career. The stress of coaching and the draining recovery process took a visible toll on the vibrant playcaller we remember. His experiences at Auburn and South Carolina with programs in turmoil couldn’t have been pleasant. Returning to Athens as an analyst was an opportunity to reset, collaborate with another coordinator at the top of *his* game, and consider his plans for the future.

Eight years is a long time. Georgia football has changed. Football itself has changed. Thanks to Monken’s success Kirby Smart has absorbed those changes as well as anyone. With Monken Smart showed urgency by looking outside the program to find someone with fresh ideas and a fluency in everything from the Air Raid to pro schemes. Georgia’s offense might not need that kind of revolutionary change again, but it does need to carry on in the same spirit. Smart would have been in the ideal position over the past year to evaluate how well Bobo has incorporated those same lessons in his scheme and playcalling. On a touchier note Smart would also have had to evaluate whether Bobo after eight difficult years still has the drive and relentless recruiting chops that took him to the top of his profession during his first stint at Georgia.

Ultimately any offense operates with Smart’s blessing and preferences, and Smart understands how dangerous a backslide to 2019 (or, heaven forbid, 2015) would be. I doubt we’ll see the return of the fullback as a glamour position in Georgia’s offense, but, hey – who knows? Fans aren’t known for subtlety, and any strongly-held beliefs about Mike Bobo from 2014 are about to be relitigated. We give it a quarter before the first non-ironic cries of “run the damn ball Booboo.”

Before he calls one play Bobo will be involved in one of the most anticipated decisions of the offseason. Georgia’s quarterback position is wide-open for the first time since 2020. The Bulldogs have three top candidates they’ll be evaluating during the spring and summer. We might have assumptions about the pecking order, but a coaching change can be a fresh start. Choosing a starting quarterback is sometimes not a straightforward or permanent decision. Monken looked for every reason to play someone other than Stetson Bennett, and the position seemed unsettled for two of Monken’s three seasons in Athens. Smart admitted that it took a while to realize the value of Bennett’s mobility. “He overcame us,” said Smart.

Bobo was involved with Georgia’s quarterbacks from 2001-2014 and coached several of Georgia’s titans at the position: Greene, Shockley, Stafford, and Murray. That means he was also involved in the Greene/Shockley platoon in the early 2000s and the in-season tryout that took the first half of the 2006 season and had Joe Tereshinski starting. The coaches decided to redshirt Murray in 2009. Bobo’s final offense in 2014 was productive, but the quarterback room was left in bad shape upon his departure. We look back on those decisions – from Greene and Shockley all the way to Bennett – with clear hindsight. The point is that even the most accomplished coaches can struggle with those decisions. Is that a preview of how the 2023 decision will pan out? Of course not, but it won’t be surprising to see the decision linger beyond spring into August and even into the season. If that happens, it’s likely that the quarterback position will quickly overshadow any talk about playcalling or scheme.

Post Georgia football and the willful suspension of disbelief

Saturday January 28, 2023

Georgia’s victory parade and celebration was worthy of the back-to-back champions. Fans turned out in numbers and enthusiasm comparable to the party that followed last year’s drought-breaking triumph. Players and coaches had a blast interacting with a crowd several rows deep as the parade crawled down Lumpkin Street.

But for all of the revelry there was a weird vibe that hung over the celebration.

It’s difficult and rare to repeat as a champion. Roster changes, coaching moves, and a shifting competitive landscape require almost a reinvention from year to year. Coaches must hold onto and fortify the few constants while adapting to change and starting all over. That’s true of any program, but the complacency that can set in after a taste of success adds another layer of difficulty. Elite performance makes unnatural demands of players and coaches. Long and unpleasant hours, the discipline required to put in the daily work, and almost-guaranteed physical pain are things few of us would or could sign up for. The shiny goal of a championship hangs out there for a handful of contenders, and that helps to give some direction to the day-to-day effort.

What happens when a team reaches its goal? Players and coaches might have cared far less about 1980 than we did, but even they were caught up in the collective release of angst last January in Indianapolis. How would they refocus in 2022 on a goal that’s already been met? Georgia’s draft results became a useful point to that end for Kirby Smart: many of the key contributors to that title were in the NFL now. Last season’s title belonged to last season’s team, and the 2022 team claiming that title would have been unearned. Fair enough.

“Rat poison” has become a running joke since Nick Saban introduced the term, but players believing their own positive press and adoring fans can be a legitimate problem when there are real issues to fix and new puzzles to solve. Basking in the glow of wins can detract from the process-oriented approach favored by Saban, Smart, and other successful coaches. To counter the praise, coaches, players, and fans will latch on to slights – real, exaggerated, or even invented – to keep the fire burning.

None of that is novel stuff – coaches look for any mental edge they can find. At some point it doesn’t even matter if that mental edge is grounded in reality. Could a Georgia team never ranked worse than third claim a legion of doubters? Repeating as champion is difficult enough, and you didn’t need more than the constant reminder of players lost to the NFL and offseason attrition to credibly suggest that someone might dethrone Georgia. That suggestion was apparently enough to serve as a motivator during the season. The defense might be OK, but there’s no way it can remain elite after losing that many players. We can keep going: the offensive line took the Joe Moore Award personally. Erik Ainge’s comments before the Tennessee game were turned into a challenge to Georgia fans, and that challenge was met. Disrespect is a universal motivator.

It’s one thing for a coach to convince himself that he’s up against the world. Coaches seem to be paranoid by nature. It’s another to get an entire high-performing organization aligned behind the same concept. These young men aren’t monks and are immersed in the same social media as the rest of us; they know when they’re being fed a line. At the same time they’re not like their peers. Anyone disciplined and gifted enough to play major D1 football has spent years learning how to work towards collective goals and follow leadership. Successful leaders are able to align individuals in the service of the group, and that begins with a unified belief in the legitimacy and virtue of a goal and a rejection of any perceived challenge to that goal. Georgia player interviews during the season were fascinating because they showed how effective the coaching staff had been at hammering home the week’s message. It’s no surprise then that coaches could be as effective getting buy-in on the bigger picture.

Fans can appreciate in a general sense that performing at the highest level requires an unusual focus. We’re a bit fuzzier when it comes to the tactics coaches use to maintain that focus. We understand that an opponent shouldn’t be given bulletin board material, but it all comes with an implied wink-wink that it’s all just cut from the same cloth as the Vince Dooley “long-snappah” meme. So it was attention-getting to hear the coaches and players continue with the same fervor at the celebration. Smart praised his team saying, “They took advantage of the opportunity in front of them to prove people wrong.” The tone of the celebration was as much defiant as it was triumphant.

That same motivation played out on an individual level. In Stetson Bennett’s case though the doubt that fueled him was very real. The tale of Bennett’s path at Georgia has been sanitized enough that even the most casual football fan can recite the story of the plucky former walk-on whose drive led him to became a Heisman finalist and two-time national champion. What often gets lost is the bitterness that helped to fuel that drive. Some of that bitterness bubbled to the surface as his Georgia career approached its end. At the celebration there was the immediate “did he just say that?” jolt that woke up fans numbed by an hour of polite congratulations from dignitaries. Then there was a short period of “surely he didn’t mean us” soul-searching among the self-conscious. The realization that Bennett was mostly talking about the media was almost an absolving relief, but the uncertainty and unease remains. This wasn’t jolly Jordan Davis riding off into the sunset. Bennett’s farewell wasn’t all the tidy lovefest we’d prefer, and given his backstory it probably shouldn’t be.

Yes, the media doubted Stetson Bennett. But so did I. So did you. It’s something we’ve never really come to terms with as a fan base, and the reason Bennett’s comments were so jarring is that it cut through the suspension of disbelief that we had created for ourselves. Bennett is now the larger-than-life fan favorite “The Mailman.” He’s the fun guy swigging Pappy after winning a national title. He’s the cocky Stequavious whose Samson-in-reverse haircut was watched as closely as the injury report.

But this was also the same Bennett who was a last resort to avoid a shocking loss at Arkansas. He was the placeholder for J.T. Daniels as we waited impatiently during the 2020 season for the switch to be made. Bennett was quickly forgotten in the 2021 offseason as the Daniels Heisman hype took over. He was again the stand-in during 2021 as we nervously wondered whether Daniels’ lingering injury would cost Georgia a shot at a special season. Right up through the 2021 playoff in the wake of a disappointing loss to Alabama there was still sentiment for someone other than Bennett. He was a temp whose assignment was renewed from week-to-week.

Fans weren’t creating this impatience and doubt on their own. Very Serious Analysts made the case for Bennett to sit throughout his career. But even the media were following the lead of Bennett’s own coaches. Todd Monken was brutally honest about the staff’s assessment of Bennett’s prospects to play. “All we did was try to bury him for the couple of years he was here,” Monken admitted. The staff entertained the quarterback uncertainty through 2020 and even 2021 sticking with the noncommittal “best chance to win” answer right up through Orange Bowl preparations.

To be fair, a lot of the reckoning going on is hindsight. The Bennett of 2022 isn’t the Bennett of 2020 or even 2021. He had deficiencies, made some poor decisions, and might not have had the measurables that coaches wanted in their quarterback. An important lesson of Bennett’s story is how he used – and continues to use – that criticism and doubt to improve himself. The Bennett we saw at Tech in 2019 and into 2020 is a far cry from the a Heisman finalist and playoff MVP we know now. You’d expect growth and development over a college career, but Bennett did it without much support at first – and even in the face of outright hostility at times. A part of Bennett might actually need that conflict in order to thrive. Kirby Smart continued to push that button even after a comeback for the ages against Ohio State, and Bennett responded with a masterpiece against TCU.

As Bennett begins his next phase he’ll again have plenty of people questioning his draft position and then his prospects for sticking in the NFL. That might be just what he needs.

Post Opening the door for Stetson Bennett: Heisman finalist

Wednesday December 7, 2022

It was just a year ago – December 4, 2021 – that Georgia lost a game. Alabama’s convincing SEC Championship Game win over #1 Georgia temporarily halted any talk of a new order in college football. Beyond the bigger picture question the loss rekindled a concern and almost a panic hiding within every Georgia fan. The Dawgs had a defense that had been called generational. The offensive scheme, laid bare and found wanting in 2019, had been overhauled under Todd Monken and showed the creativity and adaptability necessary to succeed in today’s game. There were future draft picks at every position on the offense. The only question seemed to be whether Georgia had the quarterback to put it all together.

For two years the tacit understanding was that Stetson Bennett was a placeholder at quarterback. It was Jamie Newman who was supposed to lead Georgia through Monken’s offensive renaissance. Then it was J.T. Daniels. Only a highly-rated prospect seemingly on his way to the NFL could deliver the production that elevated LSU and Alabama to titles in 2019 and 2020. As recently as the 2021 Orange Bowl – even after an undefeated regular season – there was uncertainty whether Georgia would switch quarterbacks after a lackluster performance in the SEC Championship.

Stetson Bennett finally earned the trust of fans and – more importantly – his coaches for the 2022 season and has been the unquestioned starter from the beginning. Leading a team through the college football playoff will do that for you. With the confidence of an experienced starter he’s shown complete command of the offense, navigated the team through another undefeated regular season, won an SEC title, and has earned the honor of a Heisman finalist. No one saw this coming three years ago, but you can say that about nearly every one of his accomplishments. Multi-year starter? SEC champion? National champion? Heisman finalist? Pro prospect? Inconceivable.

The Heisman finalist might be the most mind-blowing accomplishment to me. Not because it’s Bennett but in part because he’s the Georgia quarterback. I’ve usually discounted the chances for a Georgia quarterback to be considered because the Bulldogs don’t throw that much – even running Monken’s offense. It’s true that Georgia has thrown more this year, but it’s pretty stunning how far the rest of the field has come back to earth. I know passing yardage is a simplistic stat, but it’s where a lot of voters start who don’t see all of the games. (Like the 1,000-yard threshold for a running back.)

Look at some recent winners: Baker Mayfield threw for 4,600 in 2017. Young threw for 4,800 a year ago. There’s Joe Burrow’s ridiculous 5,700 yards in 2019. Even Mac Jones threw for 4,500 in a shortened 2020 season.

Now look at this year’s slate: Only Caleb Williams cracked 4,000 yards passing. Stroud, Duggan, and even Hooker are all around 3,100-3,300 yards. That opened the door for Bennett to be considered alongside them even though he’s far short of Aaron Murray’s 3,900 yards and 36 TD in 2012. He has 3,426 passing yards and passing 20 TD through 13 games. His mobility is an asset, but his 184 rushing yards don’t come close to the typical dual-threat Heisman candidate. He’s been efficient and productive relative to his (and Georgia’s) baseline. He’s the cocky leader of the #1 team in the nation, and his career arc is a fantastic story. In a season with fewer players than usual boasting eye-popping numbers, it’s the perfect moment for Bennett to build a compelling case for the sport’s highest individual honor.

(On a related note – I think that’s why Brice Young wasn’t among this year’s finalists. He’s fantastic and saved Bama on more than one occasion. But he set a high bar last year and threw for nearly 1,800 fewer yards in 2022. It’s a tough sell when voters see a guy with 65% of his production from a year ago.)

I don’t know what it says about the state of QB play that production has dropped far enough for a good year by a UGA QB to be considered Heisman-worthy. These are all very good QBs – even the ones who weren’t finalists. Only four QBs this year have surpassed 4,000 yards. There were nine a year ago (including Stroud and Young.) Are defenses catching up?

Post Georgia 37 – Ga. Tech 14: A rivalry with new life

Wednesday November 30, 2022

Last year I noticed how flat the vibe was around the Tech game from the host team. Neither the Tech fans nor – more importantly – their players wanted much to do with the game. It was clean, old-fashioned apathy.

The difference in 2021 was the indifference. Georgia fans turned out in strong numbers to see their #1 team, but the sense of rivalry was muted….The color palette of the stadium revealed the apathy of Tech fans. Assured of a three-win season and the return of their head coach, Tech fans wanted nothing to do with this game. The sarcastic cheer for Tech’s initial first down summed it up: how much energy could you put into a rivalry when it’s all you can do to move the chains?

Some of that hopelessness might have been understandable when the #1 team went up against an opponent with only three wins, but it was still jarring to see the life sucked out of the rivalry. If this year’s midseason promotion of Brent Key to head coach did anything for the Tech program, it was to restore some pride and purpose in their program. The wins that came were a byproduct. While Tech’s fans were still few and far between on Saturday for their first visit to Athens since 2018, you saw the difference on the field. This Tech team, while overmatched, was at least not the passive bystander to their own rout that they were a year ago. Tech brought reasonable game plans on both sides of the ball and, for a few possessions, came out with more energy and enthusiasm than a Georgia team that might have expected little resistance en route to another blowout. I don’t know how to say this without sounding condescending, but it was refreshing to see a Tech team put up a fight.

Georgia seemed unprepared for a Tech team willing to compete. In 2021 it didn’t matter: Georgia didn’t let a disinterested Tech team drag them into a sloppy game. Georgia played to its standard, scored on its first four possessions, and only punted once. That same focus wasn’t in place from the start in the 2022 game, and a more determined Tech team was able to stay in the game until the middle of the third quarter.

Tech’s opening series tested Georgia’s defensive discipline. It wasn’t a good sign that the game opened with a pair of 9-yard runs. The Jackets then hit a couple of easy receiver screens to the outside to cross midfield. Georgia seemed to stop the drive, but a well-executed slot fade on 4th-and-9 gave Tech a first-and-goal. (The Jackets ran that slot fade as window-dressing on a number of plays on the drive and even attempted it on first down before succeeding on fourth down. Bullard played it well on first down but got beat on fourth down.) Tech brought in their running quarterback, the left edge of the defense collapsed, and Tech walked in the first first-quarter touchdown given up by the Georgia defense all season. Chambliss got caught looking inside, and I’m still not sure where Lassiter was headed on the play.

It wasn’t a much better start for the offense. The inexplicable trend of using Brock Bowers primarily on short screens continued, and Bennett missed Kearis Jackson on third down. The Bulldogs dodged a bullet on Tech’s second possession. The Jackets again drove near midfield. They ran a fake toss that sucked in Christopher Smith and then had a wide open tight end seam route that caught reserve ILB Rian Davis out of position. Fortunately Tech’s TE dropped the pass. A completion would have created another scoring opportunity for them. A 7-0 deficit was bad enough but nothing to be concerned about. Giving up consecutive scores to open the game and going down 10 or 14 points before many fans found their seats would have sounded some alarms.

Georgia settled down somewhat as they slowly woke up. The running game came to life as McIntosh ripped off the season’s longest run by a tailback to spark the drive that put Georgia into the lead for good. The Dawgs missed another scoring opportunity as a questionable offensive facemask penalty on a fourth down conversion forced a punt. The defense, for the second straight week, couldn’t pin the opponent inside their own 5 and left themselves with no time for points at the end of the half.

The Dawgs pulled away in a dominant third quarter. Another penalty forced a field goal on Georgia’s first drive of the half after a touchdown pass to Arian Smith was ruled to be out of bounds. The defense forced their first three-and-out of the game, and the threat of a punt rush seemed to force problems with Tech’s punt operation. The Dawgs cashed in on the short 17-yard field, but again it wasn’t easy. Georgia couldn’t punch it in from the goal line, and Bowers had to scoop a short pass off the turf on fourth down. Tech fumbled on their next play to set up another Georgia field goal, and Georgia was able to open the quarter with 13 quick points before Tech managed a first down. A 99-yard touchdown drive featuring an 83-yard wheel route completion from Bennett to McIntosh blew the game open entering the fourth quarter and cleared the way for the reserves and seniors to finish out the game.

So Georgia again finishes the regular season 12-0. It’s a huge accomplishment in any year, but to do it in consecutive seasons is unprecedented at Georgia and rare for any program. Georgia didn’t take the same path to 12-0 in both seasons. Last year we were talking about the near-perfect shutout of Tech. This year for the fourth or fifth time we’re talking about starting slowly or the weather or “playing with their food” or some other explanation for an incomplete effort in a game that turns out to be a win with a margin of victory in double digits. We should know better though about the predictive nature of these games. We’ve seen this team turn it on for their biggest games, and a team that looked focused and ascendant heading into last year’s postseason fell flat in the SEC championship game. With the motivation of the program’s first SEC title since 2017, the memory of a bad loss to LSU in 2019, and a top playoff seed and virtual home semifinal game on the line, you’d expect Georgia to be a little more locked in at the start the next time they take the field.

  • Weekly appreciation of Jack Podlesny. Three points is better than nothing as the team was forced to kick field goals on three of their first five scores, and you hate to think how demoralizing a miss would have been as Tech hung close. The 50-yarder was a rocket shot.
  • Georgia has a problem on the edge. I don’t know if the solution is going with a younger player like Jalon Walker, but that will be a focal area of the defense going into the playoff.
  • Watching a late defensive line stunt involving Bear Alexander, Jalon Walker, and Mykel Williams after a nice open-field stop by Marvin Jones should give you warm fuzzies about the future of the defense.
  • Those reserves had three of Georgia’s four credited sacks in the game.
  • David Daniel-Sisavanh has to hate garbage time. He’s been on the coverage end of late scores by Michigan, South Carolina, and now Georgia Tech.
  • As a defensive lineman it’s tough for Jalen Carter to get the stats of an edge or a linebacker, but he’s so disruptive getting into the backfield and making the rest of the front six or seven better.
  • Speaking of Carter, he was a secondary target out of the backfield on the goal line pass play that went to Bowers. It’s good to show another look out of that tight formation, and we’ve seen him catch the ball before.
  • For a while a 13-yard swing pass to McIntosh was the longest pass play of the game. Bowers had five receptions for only 20 yards. Bennett completed passes to just five players. The downfield attempt to Arian Smith was a great pass, and there weren’t the weather issues of a week ago. For whatever reason the midrange, much less downfield, passing game has been kneecapped over the past few games. There’s no better example than the productivity of Bowers. Since his 154 yards against Florida, Bowers has 15 catches for 98 yards – just 6.5 yards per catch. That’s a lot of ineffective screens. The TE seam we saw at South Carolina is still a thing, right?
  • That wheel route to McIntosh turned out to be Bennett’s final pass at Sanford Stadium. What a way to go out for someone who will leave undefeated at home as Georgia’s QB1.
  • Rosemy-Jacksaint had just the one catch, but that was a tough one in space for a much-needed touchdown. It’s been a long time since that smooth touchdown against Florida in 2020, but he’s more than a tough blocker.
  • As at Mississippi State, Milton put the cherry on top with a long touchdown run. It will be interesting to see how a healthier Milton works into the McIntosh/Edwards rotation in the postseason especially as McIntosh also is playing his best football.
  • Georgia ran the ball well the past two weeks with over 245 yards on the ground in each game. That and a strong defense might be behind the retreat of the passing game, but we know Georgia will need the dynamic and aggressive offense we’ve seen earlier in the year against the more well-rounded opponents they’ll face in the postseason.
  • Second half Ringo vs. first half Ringo was one of the more decisive victories of the day.
  • Mondon and Dumas-Johnson were fantastic. Both Kentucky and Tech took shots across the middle when Georgia subbed in Marshall and Davis at ILB. The defense needs to be able to sub at those spots without much loss of continuity.
  • The late Beck fumble ended Georgia’s quest for their first turnover-free game since Vanderbilt. It might have been slow going for a few quarters, but Georgia at least didn’t give Tech’s offense the advantage of a short field until the kickoff return to midfield in the 4th quarter. Great job by the defense there to stuff Tech at midfield and force the turnover on downs. Milton finished things off from there.
  • The list of seniors, as always, only tells part of the story. Georgia will lose some underclassmen. We know there will be transfers. There’s also still the possibility under Covid rules that some seniors who walked might return. Only a handful of the seniors, like Stetson Bennett’s forced retirement, are for sure done. Whoever ends up having played their last game at Sanford has been part of some historic success at Georgia and will be remembered fondly.

Post Georgia 16 – Kentucky 6: Mistaken identity

Tuesday November 22, 2022

Going undefeated in SEC play is incredibly difficult. Just ask…any other team because it happens so infrequently. Consecutive undefeated SEC seasons had only been pulled off twice before by two of the most dominant dynasties of the last 30 seasons. Georgia joined that exclusive club Saturday with a 16-6 win at Kentucky that earned them a second-straight 8-0 SEC record. It’s another feather in the cap for the SEC’s newest emerging power.

The nature of this win seemed to reinforce the challenge of maintaining a high level of play each week. Kirby Smart thought so: he said postgame that he expected a difficult grind-it-out game. His team seemed determined to make it so.

Smart might have been wise to expect a low-scoring grind of a game given Kentucky’s style of play and the conditions. But to stop there and say, “well, that’s Kentucky for you” is to overlook some missed opportunities on both sides of the ball. Even with the cold and the wind and the road environment Georgia was in a position to make this a much more lopsided outcome. They reached the red zone on four of their first five possessions. Kentucky’s best starting field position was its own 25 and had four drives start inside its own 11. Neither the offense or defense was able to do much with those favorable situations. Three of Georgia’s four scoring opportunities ended with field goals (which turned out to be a very important nine points!) Only once was Georgia’s defense able to pin Kentucky deep with a three-and-out.

It was unusual to see Kentucky hit several deep pass plays to escape poor field position. I’m sure that’s not how Christopher Smith wanted to celebrate being named a Nagurski finalist earlier in the week. But Will Levis also had time to drop deep, wind up, and uncork those deep shots. The pass rush might have been the most puzzling thing about the defense. Kentucky gave up 40 sacks entering the game. Georgia’s pass rush had come to life since the return of Jalen Carter. Georgia did get some pressure, but they tallied only one sack and one hurry. Another sack was negated by a penalty.

The long fields Kentucky faced gave Georgia’s defense room to recover from the occasional big pass play and eventually end most drives without it costing them points. But Kentucky’s ability to move the ball and sustain drives kept the ball away from the Georgia offense. It was nearly halfway through the second quarter before Georgia’s offense began its second possession. The complimentary football with defense leading to offense that worked so well against Tennessee was less effective in this game. Fortunately the offense was able to be efficient with their few possessions and get something on the scoreboard even if was just a field goal.

While the offense was able to squeeze out some points, they did their own part to chew clock and limit possessions for both teams. An early overthrow of Darnell Washington hinted that Stetson Bennett wasn’t his sharpest. He might have been affected by the cold or was still dealing with soreness from last week, but few pass attempts had much distance, and the one deep shot missed badly and was intercepted. Georgia stuck to the run game, and Kenny McIntosh delivered with a career-high 143 yards. The Bulldogs were able to move the ball consistently between the 20s, but they found less success in the red zone when things became more compact.

Three first half field goals weren’t ideal outcomes, but Georgia’s scoring difficulties came to a head at the end of the third quarter with two unsuccessful attempts to score from the Kentucky 1. Georgia’s jumbo formation, with Jalen Carter as the lead blocker, was stuffed and pushed backwards on two similar straight-ahead running plays. Smart faced two decisions: whether to take three points or go for the touchdown and then how to get the ball in the endzone. The decision to go for it was a bit incongruous considering the fairly safe approach for most of the rest of the game. A three-possession 19-0 lead early in the fourth quarter would be untouchable. Kentucky used the momentum from the fourth down stop to become the aggressor. It took just one drive to get the Wildcats back into the game.

Smart defended the decision to go for the touchdown. “It’s a play that’s a statement play, it’s an identity play,” he said. “You’ve got to be more physical than them, and they were more physical than us.” We know how much of a core concept physicality is to this program. We saw it in the success Georgia had running the ball up and down the field. We saw it on defense in the success Georgia had stuffing one of the SEC’s more talented tailbacks. This is a physical team.

But if Smart is correct that these short-yardage situations are statements about his team’s identity, what statement does the continued ineffectiveness running out of the jumbo package make about that identity? Does Jalen Carter in the formation make the play call predictable? Are there better ways to use Georgia’s superb tight ends and Stetson Bennett’s mobility on short yardage plays? We saw wide-open scores to tight ends in these situations at Mississippi State, but in this case Georgia chose to run between the tackles twice. Short-yardage difficulties continued to plague Georgia later in the game as they were unable to kill the clock and had to punt twice, keeping the door open just slightly for a Kentucky comeback that fizzled out.

Georgia won the running game on both sides of the ball. That, some key defensive stops, and the steady leg of Jack Podlesny was enough to secure Georgia’s eighth SEC win. They know they’ll need more to turn that into Georgia’s first SEC title since 2017.

  • If it seemed as if opposing kickers couldn’t miss against Georgia, you were on to something. Kentucky’s missed field goal was only the second miss by a Georgia opponent this year in 18 field goal attempts. (Vanderbilt also missed one to preserve Georgia’s shutout.)
  • Kendall Milton continues to work back from injury and had a string of three strong runs for 28 yards to begin Georgia’s touchdown drive.
  • At the same time, it was curious that Milton was the choice on the fourth down run at the goal line to open the fourth quarter. Fresh legs weren’t an issue coming off the quarter break; the coaches had their choice of ballcarrier. McIntosh was having a career day, and Edwards is typically a tough runner between the tackles.
  • Georgia’s best chance for a big pass play was a Darnell Washington wheel route on the first drive. Bennett overthrew the pass, but Washington also slowed up. That’s a connection that should be much more in-sync at this point of the season.
  • The Bulldog offensive line was in flux as Tate Ratledge was held out with a shoulder injury. Devin Willock saw a lot of time at right guard and played well.
  • Kamari Lassiter’s ability to blow up a receiver screen is unmatched.
  • Nazir Stackhouse had one of his best games and was a big part of Georgia’s success limiting Kentucky’s running game. He, Carter, and Mykel Williams have become an excellent base defensive line. Stackhouse allowed the coaches to move Carter around and attack from the outside as much as he has all season.
  • Ringo had another fantastic interception (and for a moment had us thinking of another pick-six), but my favorite play was his tackle on third down just before Kentucky scored. Ringo fought through a pick and prevented any forward progress after the catch to limit Kentucky to just a two-yard gain.
  • Georgia’s lone sack came late in the game. Bullard, just as he did against Tennessee, crashed in from the outside and met Beal at the quarterback.
  • It was another great turnout for Georgia fans, but the cold and wind got to them too. The far-from-capacity crowd was subdued and muffled as we focused on keeping warm. Most were just interested in being done with the game as quickly as possible, and that attitude seemed to mirror what we were seeing on the field. We’re obliged to the two teams to getting us out of there as expeditiously as possible.

Post Georgia 45 – Miss. St. 19: Champions bearing gifts

Tuesday November 15, 2022

This was the one. An SEC road game after the Florida rivalry and the emotional Tennessee win. A unique and noisy environment these players had never experienced. An opponent that was unbeaten in its home stadium. A perplexing defensive system that held Georgia to 8 total yards rushing two seasons ago. An unconvetional offense coached by its master and led by a quarterback nearly as experienced as Georgia’s. It was the third offense in three weeks that required special preparation with little carryover from the previous game. If you can spot a trap game in August, is it really a trap game?

The 2020 Mississippi State game might have been a bigger challenge in terms of preparation. J.T. Daniels made his first start in place of the injured Stetson Bennett. The defense just had its tail handed to them by Florida. A Georgia defense used to being the aggressor was slow and tentative as they adjusted to the challenges of facing the Air Raid. In 2022 the defense seemed more comfortale with the assignment. Georgia held Mississippi State out of the endzone until the second half. They held Will Rogers, with two more years under his belt, to 1.5 fewer yards per attempt in 2022 than in 2020. There were still a handful of costly breakdowns and unneccessary penalties, but Georgia’s defense was the steadier unit for the Bulldogs in this year’s meeting.

Jalen Carter appeared in both the 2020 and 2022 game, and his development and increased role during those two seasons was a big part of Georgia’s defensive success on Saturday. Carter was a handful from the inside with 7 tackles, a sack, and 1.5 tackles for loss. Mississippi State is typically near the bottom of SEC rushing stats, but the broadcast documented how MSU had improved to nearly 80 rushing yards per game. Carter and the defensive front made sure MSU didn’t reach 50 yards on the ground in this game. The blueprint for defending MSU is to rush three defenders and drop eight into coverage. Georgia was able to rush three and occasionally four and could still generate a decent pass rush and formidable run defense largely because Jalen Carter was nearly unblockable.

Georgia faced a similar challenge on offense as they saw in 2020. Mississippi State’s 3-3-5 defense again sought to take the run game away, and Todd Monken was again happy to make MSU pay with big chunks on pass plays. Instead of J.T. Daniels throwing bombs down the sideline, Stetson Bennett attacked with his tight ends and big passes to the slot at a fair 7.8 yards per attempt. Georgia didn’t have a pass play over 30 yards this time after having three or four in 2020, but five receivers had catches between 15 and 30 yards. Georgia’s difficulty running the ball on early downs put pressure on the offense to convert on third down, and Bennett, playing through arm pain, was up to it. He was 7-for-11 on third down with a touchdown and a fluke interception.

Apart from the tight ends Bennett’s favorite target was Ladd McConkey. McConkey seems back in form after a midseason slump, and his versatility was on display with a 70-yard touchdown run and a 28-yard reception on a slot fade to the goal line. Kearis Jackson also had a nice game at receiver with season highs in receptions and yardage. In two career games against MSU, Jackson has 8 catches for over 100 yards and a touchdown with a 40-yard reception in 2020 and a 30-yard catch in 2022.

A big difference in this meeting was that the Dawgs managed some longer gains on the ground. Two touchdown runs by McConkey and Milton accounted for 104 of Georgia’s 179 rushing yards. Why did Georgia have two explosive scoring plays from the running game when they couldn’t move the ball on the ground in 2020? Darnell Washington played in this game. Washington’s block on McConkey’s sweep was so effective that it essentially neutralized a second defender. Washington then combined with Broderick Jones to create one of the cleanest lanes of the night for Kendall Milton to burst through. Those blocks would have been enough, but Washington added 5 receptions and a touchdown as Georgia exploited their advantage at tight end for two scores and over 100 receiving yards.

Georgia had some good performances on both sides of the ball, but they made things difficult for themselves with miscues. Bennett threw two interceptions. If those were somewhat unlucky, he got away with a couple of other forced throws. A mismanaged sequence at the end of the first half led to a Mississippi State punt return touchdown. Georgia led 17-3 with 2:30 left in the half but gave up 9 quick points to lead only 17-12 at intermission.

There’s been a theory floating around since Kent State or so about Georgia “playing with its food.” Georgia’s good enough that they become unfocused or invent ways to make things more difficult. I tend to think that’s a little simplistic and gives short shrift to the opponent, but sometimes you do have to wonder where the focus goes. It could be missed tackles. It could be Bennett eschewing the layup to Washington in favor of throwing into coverage. It could be half-hearted run blocking knowing that Bennett might make a play on third-and-long. You saw Kirby Smart yelling “Do you want to play?!?” at a player, perhaps Ringo, after an unnecessary facemask call late in the game. It’s not just players, either. The end of the first half has been an adventure as far back as the Kent State game when Bennett squirming across the goal line narrowly averted the clock running out. Smart lamented that he didn’t have enough speed on the field to cover the punt – why is that an issue on a routine special teams play in game 10?

McConkey’s run to open the second half was a palate cleanser that got Georgia back on track. The Dawgs weren’t in danger and turned it on just as they’ve done all season with three touchdowns on their first four possessions of the second half. There’s no question that the team is a machine when the players are locked in, but it can be frustrating when the lapses show up. It won’t matter in the regular season; a 26-point win in a situation like this shows that Georgia has more than enough to overwhelm the teams on their schedule. Clinching the SEC East title starts us looking to the postseason though. Does it matter if games like this get a little sloppy? We’ve seen Georgia turn it on for their toughest opponents, but you know that coaches want the team more locked in with an SEC title shot and a return to the playoff on the line.

  • We lump several operations into “special teams,” and Georgia’s results among those different operations are all over the place. Podlesny remains a reliable placekicker, but his shorter kickoffs into the wind were nearly all returned across the 25. Thorson has been above-average if a little inconsistent, and a lot of things went wrong on the punt returned for a touchdown. Georgia’s return games have been nothing special. Some nice midseason McConkey returns have Georgia at 38th in the nation in average punt return yardage. Kick returns though are an abysmal 99th. We know that Kearis Jackson is a capable returner, but blocking has been so poor that it’s just best to take the fair catch.
  • It had to be a big boost to Kendall Milton’s confidence to break a long touchdown run. Edwards and Robinson took a step forward on the depth chart during Milton’s absence, but it was nice for #2 to have a positive moment to build on.
  • Jalen Carter, as a true freshman, caught a touchdown pass out of the fullback position against Tennessee. I kept wondering if he’d once again be a target from the goal-line package as Georgia struggled to punch it in, but why get cute when you’ve got a fleet of tight ends?
  • Kamari Lassiter’s development has been a late-season bright spot for the defense. He, along with the rest of the secondary, held their own against Tennessee’s fleet of receivers. Lassiter continued to stand out against MSU with a fantastic 4th-and-1 stop to sniff out a screen and end a scoring opportunity that was Mississippi State’s last real chance to get back into the game.
  • Christopher Smith hasn’t nececsarily been known as a big hitter, but his big hit to separate a receiver from the ball on a third down pass was textbook. Targeting is always a big risk on collisions with receivers in the middle of the field, but Smith’s hit was clean and effective.
  • Dumas-Johnson seemed to be a step slow. He still had four tackles but wasn’t nearly as active as Mondon. He might be banged up, and he’s important enough to getting the defense set up that we’ll take diminished production if it means he’s on the field. Marshall got some good minutes and also finished with four tackles.
  • Robinson only got two carries, but it was still a positive to get him on the field in his home state.
  • The punt return and quick score following Bennett’s second interception obscure a really solid performance by the defense. Maybe the only disappointing play was the 40-yard reception before halftime that set up a field goal. Smith and Starks mismanaged the coverage communication, and Mondon missed a tackle in such away that the receiver was able to cut back against the flow for a long gain. It was one of the few negative plays on an otherwise standout night for Mondon.
  • Thorson struggled to get much distance on his first few punts – maybe it was the cold. The punt returned for a touchdown was a line drive. But his final punt was yet another cannon shot for 62 yards that flipped the field.

The Bulldogs are SEC East champions for the fifth time in Kirby Smart’s seven seasons. They’re 10-0 in consecutive seasons for the first time in program history. The gap between this era of Georgia football and other successful Georgia periods is growing wider. There are still two games left to close out another undefeated regular season, but another division title puts bigger goals in sight.

Post You want a night game. You don’t want *this* night game.

Monday November 14, 2022

The 2019 Notre Dame game gave new life to night games under the lights at Sanford Stadium. The “Light Up Sanford” tradition that began some years earlier combined with the new LED lighting system made for an impressive and entertaining show. Night games also mean elaborate day-long tailgates and all that comes with them.

Georgia, though, hasn’t had many opportunities to show off their investment in the in-game experience. The 4th quarter scene at twilight during the Tennessee game gave a tease as the lights dimmed and danced, but there was still too much daylight to get the full effect. That was about as close as Georgia will get to a night game experience in the 2022 season. Students are writing heartfelt appeals for just one late kickoff to share the experience with the next generation of UGA students. The reasoning might be shaky, but the clamor is unmistakable. Night games have become the new blackouts.

We know Georgia gets fewer night games than other SEC schools. The reasons why range from the conspiratorial to the mundane. There was a climate on campus some 10-15 years ago aimed at curtailing Georgia’s tailgating and student life scene. Time has passed, and leadership has changed, so I have my doubts that someone at UGA is sliding notes to the SEC office that just say “noon” each week. There are several other factors determining Georgia’s home start times:

  • Georgia is good and good for ratings. Home games against better SEC opponents and rivals have been picked up by CBS in the conference’s top time slot at 3:30. That prime slot might change as ABC/ESPN takes over the entire SEC inventory of games.
  • Attractive non-conference games are at neutral sites. Last season’s Clemson game kicked off at 7:30 pm. It was in Charlotte. There are better home-and-home series on the books, and we’ll see if they actually happen.
  • The rest of the home schedule is weak. It’s true that Kent State or Vanderbilt could theoretically be slotted anywhere from noon to night on the SEC Network once the big networks pass on them. The vibe for a night game against a weak opponent isn’t what you’re after. The red lights of traffic leaving the stadium early rival the 4th quarter light show. If you just want the long tailgate, say so. You’ll likely be headed downtown or pointed towards home by halftime.
  • Georgia is on Eastern Time. If you hate noon kickoffs, imagine what over half of the conference thinks about 11 am kickoffs.
  • Kirby Smart isn’t as big of a fan of night games as you might think. You’d expect Smart would love to have recruits experience a rocking crowd with the lights doing their thing, and he might. But granting that most night games don’t turn out to be Notre Dame 2019, Smart seems to prefer a midafternoon kickoff for recruiting purposes.

There was one last chance for a night game, but we learned on Monday that the Tech game will kick off at noon. That’s become the norm for this rivalry game. It’s still getting a national time slot – ESPN’s Gameday will lead into the broadcast. That early start might be disappointing at first, but this was the one game on the schedule no one should want at night. Students will be away for the Thanksgiving holiday. They might be back in force if this were a compelling matchup, but few expect this game to be competitive. The 4th quarter festivities echoing off empty seats during a blowout on a chilly late-November night would definitely have been a monkey’s paw type of outcome for those dead-set on a night game. If it makes you feel better, think about how pleased Kirby Smart will be knowing he has a seven-hour head start on LSU resting and preparing for the SEC Championship Game.

Post Georgia 27 – Tennessee 13: Slingin’ in the rain

Tuesday November 8, 2022

It’s a painful memory, but most of us remember the 2015 Alabama game. A top ten Georgia team was humiliated by Alabama as the Tide shook off an early loss to Ole Miss and used the Georgia game to regroup for a run at the 2015 national title. A key moment came in the third quarter when a steady rain increased in intensity to a tropical downpour. Much of the Sanford Stadium crowd decided they’d seen enough and abandoned the hopeless game en masse. If we want to reach a little, it was also when fans began to realize the wide gulf that existed between their program and title contenders like Alabama. As they left the stadium many also left behind their confidence in the leadership of the program.

Seven years later it was Georgia’s turn to make a statement in a big game at Sanford Stadium. While last season’s national title was the payoff for the changes made after that 2015 season, Saturday’s win over Tennessee was evidence in support of Kirby Smart’s longer-term vision for the program. “We built a program to be sustained,” he claimed over the summer. “This program was built to be here for a long time.” Faced with a challenge for its division crown and place as a playoff contender, Georgia rose to the occasion. The talent advantage built through years of sustained elite recruiting was evident. Coaches deployed that talent in ways that attacked Tennessee’s shortcomings to neutralize what the Volunteers did best. Teams that aim to beat Georgia either have to match their talent level (and only a handful come close) or gain an advantage through coaching and scheme. Many believed Tennessee had that scheme advantage with their outstanding offense, but the Bulldogs were ready with a defensive game plan that was executed to near perfection.

Even the Georgia crowd understood that it had a role and delivered perhaps the best home environment experienced at Sanford Stadium. The crowd. Georgia fans, fresh off a rivalry win in Jacksonville, regrouped with plenty of energy for the highest-ranked home matchup in decades. Fans were in place early and vocal from the start. Tennessee had two false start penalties on their opening drive, and it continued all day. Erik Ainge might have been right at one time: Georgia did have a frustrating reputation for a muted home crowd. But that claim hasn’t been true for a while. Fans have answered Kirby Smart’s call since his first spring game, and the confidence that the Dawgs will deliver in big home games keeps them coming back. Even another downpour was on Georgia’s side this time. As the skies opened in the third quarter, a raucous crowd only grew more resolute and impactful as the Georgia defense stood its ground on multiple fourth down attempts.

The rain didn’t chase Georgia fans this time. A satisfied and jubilant crowd was slow to leave the stadium after the win. The rain had ended, the skies were clearing, and Georgia was back on top. There was no cause to storm the field after toppling #1; the Bulldogs had simply reclaimed what was theirs. But the Dawgs also understand the work involved in staying on top, and this win – while impressive and historic – only earns Georgia the right to keep it going for another week.

The next couple of weeks will be a strong test of maturity for the young Georgia team. It’s one thing to play with a chip on your shoulder in front of a frenzied home crowd. No one is disrespecting Georgia or its players now. They’ll be ranked at the top and celebrated as much as Tennessee was entering the game. The slights are getting fewer and fewer without venturing into the absurd for motivation. Georgia now has to take their #1 ranking back on the road for their final two SEC games, and we know how unpleasant the last true road game was for the Bulldogs. Kirby Smart will have to keep the team focused on how these games fit into the season’s larger objectives. The Tennessee win keeps Georgia in control of its goals but clinched nothing. The importance of taking a 12-0 record into the postseason is the message now, and that starts with beating some decent SEC teams in their stadiums.

Rather than trying to pick out one or two big moments from a monumental game, it might be better just to walk through the game.

  • Holding Tennessee to an opening field goal. Tennessee is known for their quick starts. They took less than two minutes to score on Alabama and led 21-7 after a quarter. They recovered a turnover on the opening kickoff at LSU and put the game away early. Even last year they led Georgia after the first quarter before Georgia took control of the game. So when Tennessee’s first possession began near midfield after a Georgia fumble, it wasn’t ideal. Quickly we saw two themes emerge. First, Georgia was effective at forcing Tennessee to move the ball in small chunks. The Vols completed five passes but none went for more than seven yards. Second, Tennessee got behind the chains on two false start penalties as the home crowd became involved. The Vols scored first, but a field goal wasn’t the worst outcome after giving Tennessee a short field.
  • Welcome back Arian Smith. Tennessee’s big play offense was the toast of the nation entering the game and the force that propelled them to #1. Meanwhile Georgia’s missing deep threat at receiver had been an unfortunate footnote for a Bulldog offense that was otherwise extremely efficient. Arian Smith’s gradual return to the lineup hadn’t yielded much fruit until Bennett uncorked a 52-yard bomb to the speedy receiver to open Georgia’s second possession. It was the longest reception by a Georgia wide receiver this season, and it would come to represent the Georgia offense flipping the script on a perceived weakness. While the Georgia defense did its best to limit the Tennessee deep threat, Georgia completed three passes – two of which went to receivers – longer than any Tennessee reception. Bennett took two more deep shots to Smith, and one probably should have been caught. Georgia rediscovering a vertical element to its passing game is an exciting development for the last third of the season.
  • Run, Stetson, run. I wrote last season about the theory “that Stetson Bennett needs a good QB run to get going.” It was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but Georgia scored on four out of six possessions after Bennett scrambled and dove at the pylon in the first quarter. It’s not that he wasn’t on target before his run (the long pass to Arian Smith was outstanding), but Bennett was in complete command in the final 20 minutes of the first half. The wheel route to McIntosh, the long touchdown to McConkey, and the perfectly-placed strike to Rosemy-Jacksaint were all examples of Bennett playing at a level that earned him brief Heisman chatter after the Oregon and South Carolina games.
  • Complementary football. Georgia’s first possession after their opening score didn’t go well. Edwards was tackled for a loss. Bennett and Blaylock miscommunicated on a third-down pass that ended up behind the sure-handed receiver, and the Dawgs were unable to build on their lead. Punter Brett Thorson quickly reignited the crowd with an improbable 75-yard punt that rolled out of bounds at the Tennessee 1. With the big special teams play in hand, the Georgia defense took over and pinned the Volunteer offense against their own goal line. Jalen Carter fought into the backfield and forced a fumble (and what should have been a safety), but a short punt out of the endzone turned out to be damaging enough. Bennett found McConkey on the next play for a 37-yard touchdown, and Georgia led 14-3. Special teams leading to defense leading to offense is about as complete of a team score as it gets.
  • Jalen Carter. The depth of talent built through recruiting gives Georgia a big advantage, but let’s not kid ourselves about the importance of individual superstar talent. Jalen Carter has fortunately been able to return from a knee injury suffered at Missouri. He had a limited but active role on third down plays against Florida. His role increased against Tennessee, and so did his impact. Carter looked very much like a projected high first round pick and tallied four tackles, two tackles for loss, the sack in the endzone, and also forced two fumbles. His presence isn’t just about his stats; he changes the identity of the defense. Georgia’s overall defensive pressure has gone to another level over the past two games as Carter becomes healthier and more involved.
  • Georgia’s defensive backs. Georgia’s cornerbacks hadn’t intercepted a pass this season. We saw a communication issue lead to a long Florida touchdown a week ago, and that was a cause for concern: Tennessee’s tempo, formations, and personnel are designed to cause confusion and get receivers open for big plays. Beyond that Tennessee’s receivers are big and physical, and a broken tackle could easily lead to a big play when the defensive backs are isolated in man coverage. Bulldog defensive backs were excellent on both counts: most Tennessee passes were completed in front of Georgia defenders, and those defenders made the tackle. It wasn’t perfect – Volunteer receivers got beyond the coverage a handful of times, but the Georgia pressure was effective enough to force errant throws. The result was an astonishingly-low 5.9 yards per attempt for a Tennessee quarterback who had built a Heisman-quality highlight reel of big pass plays. Ringo and Lassiter fought all afternoon with those large receivers and were among the team’s leaders in tackles. Ringo’s interception was a textbook example of coverage and kept Tennessee from stealing points just before halftime. Bullard has emerged as a physical presence at star, and his second half sacks off of brilliant pressure calls ignited the crowd. Finally, Starks – thrown into the fire as a true freshman against a complex passing attack – was magnificent and ended up leading the team in tackles. Georgia’s commitment to pressure placed these defensive backs in do-or-die situations for much of the game, and they had their best showing of the season.
  • 11 plays, 25 yards. Georgia had a pretty fresh memory of how fast a large halftime lead can evaporate. Tennessee came out in the second half needing a score, and they had some early success moving the ball on their first drive of the second half. But as with their first possession of the game, they were unable to break any play longer than a 9-yard designed run by Hooker. When Tennessee crossed midfield, the Dawgs increased their pressure. Sacks by Dumas-Johnson and Brinson drove the Vols back to midfield and forced a punt. Without big plays Tennessee was unable to sustain the drive and took five minutes off the clock. That situation would come up again later in the game.
  • The death march drive. Any hopes Tennessee had of a quick response to begin the second half were squashed as Georgia went on a 15-play drive that ate up nearly nine minutes of clock. It’s a cliché that the best way to slow a high-performing offense is to keep it on the sideline, but that’s exactly how Georgia approached its third quarter offense with a decent lead and the weather turning bad. Most of the plays on this drive were small gains on the ground, but two key third down passes to McConkey kept the drive going. With the offense able to chew clock with small gains, there wasn’t much need to take chances downfield in the passing game. Even McConkey’s big 23-yard reception was a safe screen pass. Once Georgia got into field goal range, they finished the drive with three more runs that ate another two minutes. Podlesny’s field goal capped off the drive and gave Georgia a three-touchdown lead with only 16 minutes left in the game.
  • When it rains, it pours. As Georgia put the screws to the Tennessee defense in the third quarter, a steady rain drenched the stadium. That affected Georgia’s playcalling as the Dawgs were content to keep things close to the vest and protect the ball. Eventually both teams traded fumbles at the end of the third quarter. The rain didn’t diminish the crowd’s volume or influence. The crowd was stirred into a frenzy by the two sacks early in the quarter. The slightest hint of the fourth quarter light show was enough to keep the party going in the stands. As Tennessee’s desperation increased in the fourth quarter, the crowd only got louder with more false start penalties and the success of Georgia’s pass rush.
  • One last stand. Tennessee did get into the endzone later in the game, but I think coming up short on their first drive of the fourth quarter settled the outcome. It was another long drive that took 14 plays and over 6 minutes that came up empty. Combined with their first drive of the second half, that’s two drives totaling 25 plays that cost 11 minutes with nothing to show for it. That’s a killer outcome for a team trying to come back from two and three possessions down. It was on this drive that the crowd was at its loudest, and the Georgia defense gave them plenty to yell about. Georgia’s defensive coaches unleashed their most intense pressure of the game, and the Dawgs recorded sacks on three straight plays. Only an unfortunate facemask penalty by Jalon Walker (mistakenly attributed to Mykel Williams) gave the Vols new life. That setback didn’t take much out of the pressure or the crowd as the Vols approached Sanford’s east endzone. Another Javon Bullard sack put the Vols in a 4th-and-long situation, and Hooker’s futile fourth down pass sailed out of bounds.
  • Taking a knee. Georgia had consecutive three-and-outs surrounding Tennessee’s lone touchdown. The drives served their purpose by milking another three minutes, but you sensed that Kirby Smart expected better blocking and execution. They even attempted a deep pass to Arian Smith as a knockout blow, but Smith couldn’t complete the catch. The Dawgs did gain a first down on their final possession on a tough run by Edwards and didn’t have to give the ball back. A Tennessee comeback at that point would have taken a miracle, but you never want to give that opportunity to an explosive offense. Ending the game in the victory formation was the perfect way to finish off the (former) #1 team.

Some final notes from a day we’ll remember for a long time:

  • It wasn’t a huge day for the Georgia running game. They were more effective on the ground than a Tennessee offense that’s been surprisingly productive running the ball. The Tennessee rushing defense is also surprisingly stout, yielding under 3 yards per carry. It’s on the back end where the Tennessee defense has been most vulnerable, and that’s where Stetson Bennett did his damage getting over 10 yards per attempt.
  • Tennessee’s 2-for-14 on third downs says a lot about Georgia’s defensive success on early downs. Every decent preview of the game noted how adept Tennessee has been at staying ahead of schedule and avoiding long third down situations. Georgia, through pressure and penalties, knocked the Volunteer offense off balance enough to slow the tempo and give the crowd time to affect those third down plays.
  • It might not have shown in the rushing stats, but the Georgia offensive line was solid in pass protection. Tennessee didn’t record a sack, and Bennett had plenty of time to take deep shots. Even on an instance when Tennessee got a shot at Bennett, the downfield blocking was good enough to give Bennett a path to scramble to the endzone. Devin Willock held his own in his first start at guard.
  • Darnell Washington’s the guy you want curling himself around an onside kick, isn’t he? Not too many people are going to separate him from the ball.
  • Thorson’s punt was the special teams story, but it was another steady day for Podlesny apart from the bank shot extra point. His two field goals provided important margin (how different does the game feel at 21-13?), and nailing a 38-yard field goal in the driving rain to give Georgia a three touchdown lead was a huge play by the entire placekicking operation.
  • It wasn’t a huge day for the tight ends, but blocking doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. The tight ends helped keep Bennett upright and allowed the backs to grind out some tough yards against a difficult defensive front. Washington couldn’t quite pull in a catchable touchdown pass.
  • This was Georgia fourth game of the last six with multiple turnovers. It didn’t especially cost them in this game. and they were able to draw even against the team leading the SEC in turnover margin. If there’s an area to clean up heading into some road games against upset-minded teams, it’s ball security.
  • You wonder if Georgia could have turned the offense back on if Tennessee were able to draw closer in the second or third quarters. They managed to do so against Florida, but fortunately the defense made it a non-issue.

On a day with the #1 ranking, the SEC East, and a repeat playoff appearance on the line everything aligned for Georgia. The offense took early control. The defense was suffocating. Even special teams had its big moments. The homefield advantage, as Smart put it, was again “elite.” It wasn’t by chance for everything to come together in a big game – that’s what the program is designed to do.

Post Georgia 42 – Florida 20: A three-act play

Tuesday November 1, 2022

Most of the Bulldog Nation has moved on to this week’s showdown in Athens. If I couldn’t let a Homecoming blowout go without a few words, I’m damn sure going to give a win over Florida its due. It was kind of ridiculous that the trip to Jacksonville became somewhat of a trap game as the hype surrounding the Tennessee game began to build over the bye week. Florida had the season-opening upset of Utah to their credit, but it’s been a rough road since for first-year coach Billy Napier. The Gators had competitive losses to Tennessee, LSU, and Kentucky that featured the talent to make those games within reach but also showed the deficiencies that made a coaching change necessary. Florida was a decisive underdog against Georgia, and “crazy things have happened in Jacksonville” is true enough but not exactly firm ground around which to build a winning game plan.

Fans might have been overlooking the game, but Kirby Smart is never going to give the Florida game less than his best. Georgia was prepared and took early control. The Bulldogs scored on two of their first three drives while holding Florida to three-and-out on their first four possessions. Florida’s only offense of note in the first half was a 41-yard reception by Justin Shorter as Kelee Ringo mis-timed his jump. Georgia’s 28-3 advantage at halftime was as decisive on both sides of the ball as the score suggested.

Florida rebounded out of halftime behind their running game. A run and reception by Trevor Etienne moved the ball to midfield. A 5-yard run by quarterback Anthony Richardson set up a manageable fourth down attempt. Kirby Smart called a last-second timeout as the ball was snapped, and Bear Alexander wasn’t able to pull up in time. The personal foul gave Florida the break they needed to get into the endzone, and the comeback was on. As with most large swings in momentum, Georgia had to help with breakdowns in all phases of the game. Kearis Jackson tried to return three straight kickoffs and failed to reach the 25 due to poor blocking. Georgia had a fumble and interception on consecutive drives. A communication failure let Xzavier Henderson get behind the Georgia defense for a 78-yard touchdown reception that pulled Florida within one possession.

Georgia turned to the ground game for their answer. Kenny McIntosh rebounded from his fumble, and he and Daijun Edwards combined for 59 yards on a much-needed scoring drive. A tough 19-yard reception by Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint was the only pass play on the drive, but it got Georgia out of a 2nd-and-12 hole. Edwards rumbled for 22 yards three plays later for the score as he squeezed through a small hole and emerged from among the giants.

Georgia was back in control at 35-20, but it’s quite likely that the deciding point in the game was Florida’s fourth down attempt from midfield with nearly 14 minutes remaining. The Gators were still within 15, and the broadcast questioned whether it was too soon yet to go for it on 4th and 6. Florida had scored on their previous three possessions, but Georgia had just answered with a score of their own. The decision was set up by a nice defensive play on third down as a Florida running play was stuffed for a one yard gain. Napier might have already been thinking about the fourth down play, but the unsuccessful run on third down changed the situation. Richardson’s pass fell incomplete under heavy pressure from Carter and Dumas-Johnson, and Georgia cashed in the short field with the touchdown that put the game out of reach for good.

Even up 42-20, the Bulldogs weren’t as dominant as they had been in the first half. Florida didn’t have a three-and-out in the second half, and their final two drives reached the Georgia red zone. Georgia’s defense, to their credit, made the plays to force a turnover on downs on Florida’s final three possessions. It was the offense, though, that was able to turn it back on and put the game away. What deflated any chance of another Florida comeback was a stifling 11-play Georgia drive in the fourth quarter that ate up seven and a half minutes of clock. Darnell Washington dropped a fourth down pass that would have extended the drive even further, but the damage had been done: by the time Florida got the ball back there was only 1:32 left and the outcome settled.

That shaky third quarter was enough to put a scare into fans that were well into revelry at halftime. The turnovers, coverage problems, and the near-meltdown in all phases hit just as fans began looking ahead to the next opponent. It’s obvious what turnovers and missed assignments could mean against a top 3 team. Perhaps the team itself had also begun to peek ahead before this job was finished. We’ve praised the composure of this team several times already this season and will do so again – it was commendable to right the ship in a big rivalry game and not collapse entirely. It would have been just as commendable to stay in the moment and not make the sloppy mistakes that let Florida back in the game. Give the Gators credit – they didn’t fold at halftime and took advantage of the opportunities Georgia opened up. It’s a trait they showed in their game at Tennessee and a hopeful sign for a new coach. But a Georgia team that prides itself on making the opponent quit can’t be pleased with how that went.

  • I’m sure Stetson Bennett is glad to be rid of Jacksonville. He led Georgia to two wins after the nightmare of 2020, but neither win was a showcase for Bennett. He entered the game with only one interception thrown all season and left town with two more. His completion rate was just 50%, though it didn’t help that some of his better passes were simply dropped. Bennett still threw for over 300 yards and a respectable 8.3 yards per attempt. 73 of those yards came on one pass and a remarkable reception by Brock Bowers. (It reminded me of Bennett’s scramble escape and touchdown pass against Oregon – it made for a great highlight, but the outcome was very, very lucky.)
  • Kenny McIntosh ripped off runs of 13 and 15 yards after his fumble, and no player better represented Georgia’s resolve to get back on track after Florida’s scoring run. Edwards and Robinson deserve a ton of credit for their midseason production in the absence of Kendall Milton, but McIntosh had his highest rushing output of the year in Jacksonville. More than half of his 90 yards came after his fumble, and he finished off the scoring with a powerful run to drag the pile into the endzone.
  • As productive as McIntosh was on the ground, his role in the passing game has taken a back seat. He had 21 receptions in September but only 8 in October. Surely defenses have adjusted as Georgia’s deep passing threat has diminished, but we know how dangerous McIntosh can be out of the backfield and wonder if something is in store for him.
  • To take that a step further, McIntosh’s single reception (for a five-yard loss) against Florida was the only reception by a tailback. That’s quite a change from the four tailbacks who caught a pass against Oregon.
  • It was also surprising to see Bennett only have one carry in the game. That’s not to say his mobility wasn’t used – there were a handful of nice bootlegs and rollout passes. You also don’t want to expose him to contact if you don’t have to. That said, we know how effective his scrambling and option reads can be. As with McIntosh’s role in the passing game, you wonder if Bennett’s running ability is something we’ll see more of against better opponents.
  • The loss of Nolan Smith was big – perhaps as much against the run as it was in pass rush. Smith has been fantastic at setting the edge and disrupting running plays before they get going. It’s no coincidence that Florida began to run the ball better in the second half without Smith in the game.
  • While the defense missed Smith, the return of Mondon and Carter was welcome. Carter was primarily used on third down packages and was extremely active and disruptive. Hopefully he can give the defense some early down snaps soon.
  • Javon Bullard really makes a difference. He and Christopher Smith played lights-out. Smith’s pressure and sack of Richardson just after Bennett’s first interception was a great play to make sure Florida didn’t get anything going out of the turnover.
  • Just as important was holding Florida to a field goal after McIntosh’s fumble. The Gators got the ball inside the Georgia 30 and were able to move down to the 10, but the defense did well to hold it together facing the short field. Georgia’s three turnovers ended up costing them ten points, but it could have been worse and much more costly.
  • Sacks didn’t really mount up until the final possession, but the defense was effective for most of the game with pressure. Georgia had ten QB hurries, eight tackles for loss, and held Richardson under 50% completion.
  • You don’t run for nearly 250 yards and allow zero sacks without good offensive line play. Devin Willock had some nice moments at guard with Truss a little banged up.
  • We didn’t quite get the burst of points just before halftime that opened up the 2021 game, but it was still an important period in the game. Brett Thorson, as he’s done all year, pinned Florida inside their own 20. It might not have been reasonable to expect Florida to go 85 yards in the two minutes that remained in the half, but they might have hoped to run out the half and head to the locker room down 21-3 with no further damage done. Georgia didn’t force a turnover, but another three-and-out was good enough: a short Florida punt set Georgia up near midfield with over a minute left and timeouts in hand. Georgia was able to run seven plays and hit two big pass plays to McConkey for the fourth touchdown of the half. That score turned out to be bigger than it seemed at the time. Georgia still had some breathing room to regroup up 28-20.
  • Georgia has built an efficient and productive offense around their depth at tight end and tailback. They leaned on those strengths in this game as much as they have all season, especially when they needed a response to Florida’s third quarter comeback.

Post The future will be streamed

Saturday October 22, 2022

Earlier this season many Georgia fans were sent scrambling to find out just what the SEC Network Plus was and how to get it on their TV *. Georgia’s home game against Kent State was exclusively available on the SEC’s streaming outlet, and there were no over-the-air, cable, or satellite options to watch the game. This is an experience common to fans of each SEC team: under the SEC and ESPN’s most recent broadcasting agreement, “each SEC football team will have one non-conference home game each year that is only available via streaming.”

Notre Dame’s broadcast partner NBC is also leveraging its streaming platform. This weekend’s Notre Dame-UNLV will be streamed exclusively on the Peacock subscription streaming service.

While streaming games might be a once-a-season annoyance for college football fans, it’s a way of life in other sports. Diehard soccer fans know to jump from service to service to find their games. NBC’s Peacock has the English Premier League. ESPN+ has Spain’s La Liga and Germany’s Bundesliga. If you want to watch Europe’s best compete in the UEFA Champions League, you must subscribe to CBS’s Paramount+. With each service costing between $5 and $10 per month, subscribing to multiple services can be costly on top of a traditional cable or satellite bill. There are partnerships that help lower the cost for some customers. Comcast and NBCUniversal merged, so Peacock access is included for many Xfinity customers. T-Mobile cellular customers have access to Paramount+. For most, though, the monthly subscription (after a free trial) is the only way to access these services.

Tech companies have joined the broadcast networks with their own streaming services, and they are beginning to acquire rights to the major American professional leagues. Amazon is broadcasting Thursday night games over its Prime Video service, and fans are tuning in. While the numbers might not yet match traditional broadcasts, the NFL is blowing away other streamed content. Apple broadcasts a Major League Baseball game each Friday night on its Apple TV+ service as it looks to become more involved in sports.

The big prize is the NFL. The NFL Sunday Ticket package is up for bids as DirectTV drops out, and Apple is a player in the negotiations. Apple previous acquired the exclusive rights for all Major League Soccer games to expand its sports operation, but the conflict between the Apple way of doing things and the NFL’s preference to have multiple broadcast partners is complicating the Sunday Ticket deal.

Whether or not Apple is able to complete the deal with the NFL, it says enough that companies see enough value in the future of streaming sports to enter into negotiations worth billions of dollars on behalf of their streaming services. Even with the large deals being announced as college conferences grow and realign, college sports is still small potatoes next to the amounts paid for the NFL.

For now the broadcast rights of most college sports – whether over the air or streaming – are in the hands of traditional broadcast partners: FOX, NBC, CBS, and ABC/ESPN. The first conference to look at a more nontraditional approach might be the Pac-12. The broadcast rights of the Pac-12 are up in the air, and the chaotic state of the conference with USC, UCLA, and perhaps others leaving has the Pac-12 unsatisfied with the offers they’re getting. That might open the door for a partnership with Amazon. Fans haven’t (and won’t) beat down the door just for Pac-12 content, but perhaps when bundled with the other benefits of an Amazon Prime subscription it might mean some more Prime subscribers for Amazon.

Well-rounded fans of college sports are probably already used to navigating the streaming world. The SEC Network Plus has been a godsend to follow Georgia and SEC sports other than football. It would have been unthinkable 15 years ago to be able to tune into nearly every SEC baseball or softball game, but they’re all streamed now. (We can gripe about the costs of multiple streaming services, but that really doesn’t apply here – if you have access to the SEC Network as part of your cable or satellite package, you likely have free access to the SECN+ once you authenticate in the ESPN app.) Football games, other than the mandated one game per year, have mostly remained on the broadcast channels, but even basketball has seen a fair number of games moved to streaming. It’s an issue of inventory – there are only so many channels and broadcast slots, and those slots are increasingly overlapping and running into one another. That’s not an issue in the streaming world, and you’re set once you get the technology down and find the local manpower to produce and present the games.

We should expect more college sports – even football – to find their way to streaming platforms. As with any technological change there will be a rough period of transition. Younger and more affluent viewers are more likely to be heavily immersed in streaming already. For older viewers navigating streaming options or even cutting the cord from traditional cable and satellite can be confusing and challenging. The conceptual model of channels, networks, and the TV guide don’t apply. Costs, whether for programming or the streaming devices themselves, can also be prohibitive for those whose entertainment budget is stretched. The services and the companies who own them will consolidate, merge, disappear, or even just get out of the streaming business. It’s one thing when SEC games move down the dial from CBS to ESPN. It’s another when you have to add another $9.95 per month service because the league you follow jumped to a competing platform.

It’s an interesting time. There are more sports than ever available to watch, an audience that keeps demanding more, and technology emerging that can deliver it all. The money involved keeps growing also, and that has attracted new competitors to the broadcast marketplace. Some of these new entrants are changing the metrics involved – subscribers matter more to them than viewership. The potential Apple/NFL and Amazon/Pac-12 deals could be signs of what’s next as the broadcast rights of other leagues and conferences come up for bid. For now it’s just the Kent State game, but have that Apple TV or Roku ready for what might be ahead.

Post Georgia 55 – Vanderbilt 0: The Ballad of Cash Jones

Monday October 17, 2022

Blowout wins against heavy underdogs tend to blur into each other. The outcome is expected, many fans leave or lose interest after the game is well in hand, and often you only have something to talk about if a team like Kent State plays you a little too close. Conference blowouts are nice, shutouts are even nicer, but we’re on to the next game before the fourth-string quarterback takes the victory formation.

While a second-straight shutout of Vanderbilt might seem like one to file away so that we can move on to the meat of the schedule, there was enough to enjoy in this game that it’s worth a moment to savor it:

  • Vanderbilt’s offense is decent enough that shutting them out is pretty impressive.
  • Georgia managed to get out ahead and put a game away in the first half for the first time since South Carolina.
  • Darnell Washington continues to be used in fun and exciting ways.
  • Carson Beck can run the offense.
  • Georgia’s defense has some talent waiting in the wings.
  • Arik Gilbert, Dominick Blaylock, and Cash Jones scored!

It’s no slight against an efficient offense that scored on four of its first five possessions, but I think the defense should lead the story in an SEC shutout. Georgia’s defense gave up 22 points in consecutive games over the past month and looked a little more dominant in last week’s win over Auburn (even with their late touchdown.) That improvement continued against Vanderbilt. Before you “but Vandy…” this is an improved and somewhat competent Vanderbilt offense. Their offense came into the game averaging 5.83 yards per play – better than Kentucky, LSU, Texas A&M, Missouri, and Auburn. They put up over 20 points against two current top 15 teams and led Ole Miss at halftime. Their defense, as we saw, has been their undoing, but it was impressive to hold that offense to 150 total yards and zero points.

In most shutouts you need a combination of good defense and a bit a luck. Georgia had both. The Commodores had two good scoring opportunities in the first half and came away empty both times. Tykee and Christopher Smith combined for a forced fumble recovery inside the Georgia 20 in the second quarter. Just before halftime Nolan Smith pressure forced an intentional grounding penalty that led to a missed 44-yard field goal attempt. That drive featured Vandy’s first empty red zone possession of the season as well as their first missed kick. Georgia did catch some breaks. Kelee Ringo mistimed his jump against a 50/50 ball and left a Vandy receiver with a clear path to the endzone had he made the catch. Vanderbilt also got a receiver open down the sideline past Robert Beal and couldn’t connect. The Commodores weren’t able to convert any of the few openings that presented themselves downfield and didn’t have a reception longer than 22 yards.

Actual scoring opportunities were few and far between though for Vanderbilt and nonexistent after halftime. Vanderbilt’s first four possessions of the second half were all three-and-out and gained a total of 12 yards. They managed one first down in the second half. What’s most impressive is that most of those second half possessions came against Georgia’s reserves. The young depth on the Bulldog defense gave fans another tantalizing glimpse of the future. A well-timed corner blitz by Nyland Green on 4th-and-1 ended Vanderbilt’s only second half drive of any length and ensured that the shutout wouldn’t be in jeopardy.

Georgia’s offense had their most complete and well-rounded performance since the September trip to South Carolina. They also matched the season-high 14 first quarter points from the South Carolina game – a welcome development after consecutive games with scoreless first quarters. If the Bulldog passing game was a little muted against Missouri and Auburn, it bounced back well against a struggling Vanderbilt pass defense. Stetson Bennett threw for an efficient 289 yards in fewer than three quarters and completed 80% of his passes. Bennett was especially strong on third downs and had two big conversions through the air on Georgia’s opening drive. As usual the receiving stats were diverse with 11 Bulldogs catching passes. What might be more interesting is that it wasn’t McConkey or Bowers leading the way. Darnell Washington and Dillon Bell were Georgia’s leading receivers, and Washington had two more jaw-dropping catches to feed his growing legend.

The Bulldog running game had a decent follow-up to last week’s breakout game. McIntosh, Edwards, and Robinson all averaged over 4 yards per carry, but it was clear that Georgia’s game plan was to attack the soft Vanderbilt pass defense. Only Edwards had at least ten carries and had the longest run (20 yards) of the main group of backs.

Things slowed down somewhat for the offense in the third quarter. Georgia had two long drives of over 5 minutes each in the third quarter but only came away with a pair of field goals. Bennett seemed frustrated with the playcalling on those drives, and there was clearly some confusion and delay in getting lined up and communicating the play from the sideline at critical moments on those drives. Bennett took a hit along the sideline on his final snap of the game as a pass play broke down. The offense got back into rhythm with Carson Beck taking over at the end of the third quarter. Beck smoothly led Georgia on a pair of scoring drives and finished the game 8-of-11 for 98 yards. There was a good zip on his passes, and he showed good patience to let Dillon Bell break open across the middle for a 24-yard scoring strike. Beck later found Arik Gilbert in close quarters to convert on third and goal and get Gilbert his first touchdown reception as a Bulldog. The good feelings continued on Georgia’s next possession as walk-on tailback Cash Jones broke a tackle and reeled off Georgia’s longest run of the day for the final score.

  • One of Beck’s more impressive plays wasn’t a pass: he recognized an opening and scrambled 13 yards across midfield. He has a level of comfort and awareness in the offense that you hope to see after a number of years in the system. I’m glad the staff continued to have him run the offense even with the outcome settled. It was valuable experience for Beck, the reserve linemen, and the young receivers.
  • Christopher Smith had a fantastic game. He led the team with five tackles, recovered a fumble, and fought through a block for a physical tackle for loss.
  • Warren Brinson blew up a reverse or trick play before it could even develop. The play should have gone for a loss but was stopped a few yards downfield.
  • Ringo made perhaps the play of the last 40 years of Georgia football, so it seems a bit ungrateful to ask the cornerbacks to please start making some plays. With the exception of Trezman Marshall’s late pick at South Carolina, Georgia’s interceptions have all come from the safety position. How well we know that turnovers can change games or end comeback attempts. It’s more than just interceptions of course – missed tackles, mis-played balls, and unnecessary penalties can also cause problems. To be fair, we don’t talk about all of the plays on which good execution leads to a failed play or the ball going somewhere else, and these negative plays are just footnotes in an overall outstanding defensive effort. Georgia will face better offenses with potent passing attacks in the next four games, and these individual plays, and whether they’re made or not, will matter.
  • Quiet day in terms of the pass rush. Smith’s well-timed sack was big, and Vanderbilt hasn’t allowed many sacks this year. Georgia still got some pressure and played solid defense behind the rush to limit Vanderbilt to 4.6 yards per attempt.
  • We know there’s much, much more to the story, but LOL at Arik Gilbert being your mop-up tight end. The reaction to his score from fans and teammates showed how much people are pulling for him to succeed.
  • Speaking of welcome returns, Dominick Blaylock tightroped the sideline for his first touchdown reception since 2019. It’s been a long way back, and Blaylock’s role is growing.
  • Georgia’s rush defense was stifling. One of Vanderbilt’s usual tailbacks left the program last week, and the remaining backs weren’t able to get a gain longer than 8 yards on the ground.
  • Brett Thorson didn’t have much to do, but look at that – another punt dropped inside the 20.
  • It might be frustrating to see Brock Bowers stats lower than you might expect, but the attention he draws on the field opens up so much of what Georgia is doing. His underneath route opened up an early third down completion to Rosemy-Jacksaint, and of course his blocking is essential to the running and screen games. As Mitchell and Smith return and Washington’s profile takes off, there’s only so much defenses can do against Bowers. He’ll have many more big plays this season.

For the first time in four years we were able to take part in pregame festivities as members of the Redcoat Alumni Band. It’s an incredible rush to be on the field as the team comes out, and even for a warm low-profile game against Vanderbilt, it was simply deafening down there. Homecoming might seem like a trite anachronism sometimes, but celebrating our connections to the University, its student and alumni organizations, and the people we met along the way is a big part of what makes college football unique.