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Post Hunter’s transfer hits hard

Monday April 29, 2019

Redshirt junior linebacker Jaden Hunter has entered the transfer portal. You can’t blame him for “seeking opportunities” to further his career and get on the field somewhere, and the depth chart at Georgia was not looking favorable.

This one stings a bit more than the usual transfer. Hunter’s Bulldog pedigree was as strong as it gets: both mother and father were student-athletes at Georgia, but it went deeper than that. After Brice Hunter’s untimely death, a group of his teammates took it on themselves to be there in Jaden’s life and remained positive influences. Hunter’s commitment video, one of the first of its kind, illustrates those deep bonds to the past. Hunter made it clear that his commitment honored his father and that legacy.

At the time, Hunter’s commitment was an early test of Kirby Smart’s recruiting chops. Hunter had major offers from the SEC and ACC, and Alabama was a big player. Smart absolutely had to get a top in-state prospect with such strong ties to the University, and he did. Hunter’s early endorsement, a little more than a month after Kirby Smart accepted the head coaching job, was part of a solid foundation on top of which the rest of the top-5 2017 class would be built.

So, yeah, this transfer weighs a little heavier than most. This weekend was a boon for the program with over a dozen players drafted by or signing with NFL teams, but Hunter’s transfer is a reminder that it’s a tough and unforgiving sport, and many stories don’t work out the way we’d prefer. Jaden Hunter’s story isn’t over, and we wish him nothing but the best.

Post 2019 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Wednesday March 6, 2019

After two seasons that saw South Carolina win a national title and Mississippi State reach consecutive national championship games, the SEC took a step back this year. According to some metrics, the SEC is arguably only the fifth-best conference in the nation, and no SEC team has done much to build a case against that claim. Mississippi State and South Carolina are still the class of the league, but even they have lacked for impact wins outside of conference play.

When you look at the few accomplishments of SEC teams out of conference, they’re best summed up as good-but-not-great. Mississippi State and Tennessee notched wins over Texas. Auburn beat North Carolina. LSU knocked off FSU. Kentucky beat South Florida. The best SEC nonconference win of the year might be Texas A&M’s defeat of Oregon State. But when matched against some of the top teams in the nation this year – UConn, Oregon, Baylor, and Louisville – SEC teams have come up short. Four SEC teams have been ranked for most of the season (MSU, SC, A&M, and Kentucky) with Missouri drifting in and out. A season ago seven SEC teams were ranked at the end of the regular season with five set to host NCAA subregionals. That won’t happen this year.

As the SEC women’s basketball tournament returns to Greenville, SC, its home for the next three seasons, the state of the conference leaves many teams with work to do in order to impress the NCAA selection committee. Mississippi State and South Carolina will hope that a tournament championship gives them a national seed and regional location favorable for a deep March run. A&M, Kentucky, and Missouri hope that a good showing in Greenville will earn them the right to host the first two rounds. Another tier of teams, including even mighty Tennessee, are just hoping to do enough to make the field of 64, and an early loss for any of those teams could mean disappointment. There will be plenty at stake from the beginning of the Thursday’s second round on through to Sunday’s championship, and that should make for some competitive and entertaining games.

Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:

Wednesday: Bye
Thursday / Second Round: vs. #10 Arkansas: 6:00 pm ET SEC Network
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs. #2 South Carolina: 6:00 pm ET SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: ~7:30 pm ET ESPNU
Sunday / Finals: 2:00 pm ET ESPN2
Complete Bracket Here

The Field

(LY – last year’s finish, PS – preseason projection)

1) Mississippi State (15-1, 27-2) (LY-1st, PS-1st): When you have an undefeated regular season, there’s no place to go but down. MSU rode the best class in program history to two straight national title games, and there was some question as to how they’d fare after losing so much from those legendary teams. Who MSU returned though was significant: center Teaira McCowan has taken on the transition from being just one of many weapons on last year’s team to being the focal point of every opponent’s game plan. McCowan hasn’t disappointed: she averages a double-double (17.3 PPG / 13.4 RPG), hits over 65% of her shots, doesn’t foul out, and has blocked 71 shots. She’s among the SEC’s top 5 in scoring and leads the league in rebounding and shotblocking.

The Bulldogs received a big shot in the arm when Texas A&M forward Anriel Howard joined MSU as a graduate transfer. Howard was primarily a rebounding machine at A&M, but she’s worked on her offense this year and is scoring nearly 16 PPG. Howard’s rebounding hasn’t suffered, and she and McCowan pull down half of the team’s boards. Jordan Danberry is another returning player who took on a larger role this year. Danberry isn’t a threat from outside but can be devastating off the dribble attacking the basket. The Bulldogs have had to adjust to a season-ending injury to sharp-shooting Chloe Bibby, and Andra Espinoza-Hunter has responded by averaging around 13 PPG over the past ten games since her minutes increased. Senior PG Jazzmun Holmes has been terrific a with an assist/turnover ratio over 4.

That’s a nice surrounding cast for McCowan, and it’s why MSU has remained a top ten program and SEC champion despite so much attention being paid to its dominant post player. Very few teams have been able to frustrate McCowan, but that’s what it’s taken to beat MSU. Missouri held McCowan to a below-average 4-for-11 shooting performance. Oregon suffocated her and limited McCowan to just five shot attempts and five points. South Carolina came close to a win in the season finale by holding McCowan to just eight attempts, but she hit seven of them and finished with 18 points. That’s the challenge for any team going up against the Bulldogs: can you limit opportunities for McCowan without someone else doing damage? Against better teams with the personnel to defend McCowan, the supporting cast has to be consistent and productive enough to compensate. They haven’t always been.

It’s been a long and successful run in the Victoria Vivians / Teaira McCowan era, but an SEC tournament title has eluded the program. Mississippi State might be as strong of a favorite to finally cut down the nets as they’ll be for a while. Is this the year?

2) South Carolina (13-3, 21-8) (LY-2nd, PS-2nd): Dawn Staley’s program seeks its fifth-straight tournament title, but they’ve fallen back towards the field this year and could face some serious challenges en route to another title defense. Life without A’ja Wilson has had its rough moments, but the result in SEC play is the same as it was a year ago: a second-place finish behind Mississippi State. The difference this year has been South Carolina’s inability to break through against the best teams in the nation. Six of the Gamecocks’ eight losses came to teams ranked in the top 10. Many of those games were competitive, but the results, especially out of conference, leave South Carolina without any national wins of note. They’ve been dominant as ever inside the SEC, losing only to Mississippi State (twice) and Kentucky.

It’s been a transition year for sure, and if you didn’t beat South Carolina this year it might be a while. A loaded signing class rated #1 in the nation will arrive next year. Meanwhile A’ja Wilson’s supporting cast has done well to maintain continuity even if the Gamecocks have been knocked down a peg from the national elite. Staley’s frustration has boiled over at times, and she pulled her entire starting lineup minutes into the Georgia game. The team has gone through scoring droughts and even their wins have been a little closer than they’ve been used to. Still, they’ve had flashes of brilliance, and a tight game against MSU in the regular season finale showed that South Carolina could once again deny Mississippi State the SEC tournament title.

Scoring has been distributed well with no player getting more than 13 PPG. Te’a Cooper is the leading scorer by a small margin, but she’s battled an injury down the stretch. Tyasha Harris has done well as the point guard. The Gamecocks boast a physical frontcourt with Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and Alexis Jennings even if they do miss the inside scoring punch of Wilson. Depth is a strength: nine players score at least 4 PPG, and not many teams can bring the likes of upperclassmen Bianca Cuevas-Moore and Doniyah Cliney off the bench.

3) Texas A&M (12-4, 23-6) (LY-5th, PS-6th): Chennedy Carter took the league by storm a season ago, and she hasn’t let up in her sophomore season. Carter averages over 20 PPG for her career, and no team – not even Missouri – asks more of a player. A&M lost three key players from last year’s team and was projected to finish sixth this season, but Carter has led them to a higher SEC finish in 2019 and the team’s best regular season since 2011. She handles the ball, leads the team in steals, can hit from outside, and can drive to the basket. How valuable is Carter? A&M wasn’t able to beat Lamar without her. That’s not good news – Carter will miss the tournament with a finger injury suffered last Sunday.

A&M will have to rely on a group of players who stepped into new and bigger roles this season. N’dea Jones and Ciera Johnson are a formidable duo on the glass, and the Aggies outrebound opponents by around 7 per game. Kayla Wells moved from the bench to the starting lineup and has become a threat that keeps defenses from keying too much on Carter.

This isn’t a very deep team. Guard Aaliyah Wilson was lost to a knee injury. Only five players average over 2 PPG. But in typical Gary Blair fashion, everyone contributes to defense and rebounding. Carter and Wells can handle the scoring, and Jones and Johnson are able to clean up inside. Missouri, LSU, South Carolina, and Mississippi State were able to match them on the glass, and that kept A&M from competing for a conference title. The Aggies are competing for a national top 16 seed that would make them a host for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. Accomplishing that goal might require a run to the SEC tournament final, but that will be extremely difficult without Carter.

4) Kentucky (11-5, 24-6) (LY-9th, PS-7th): The Wildcats bounced back well this year from a losing record in 2018 – only the second time Kentucky finished out of the top four under Matthew Mitchell. Like A&M, Kentucky exceeded preseason expectations, and a big reason why was the arrival of likely SEC freshman of the year Rhyne Howard. Howard, a 6’2″ wing, is a nightmare matchup problem who became the team’s leading scorer and rebounder as a freshman.

Last season UK had to lean heavily on the scoring of Maci Morris. With Howard, Morris has been able to contribute to a much more well-rounded attack orchestrated by senior point guard Taylor Murray. Kentucky has the backcourt depth they’ve lacked for a couple of years, and it’s allowed Mitchell to play more of the frenzied style of defense he prefers. Forward Tatyana Wyatt can be Kentucky’s scoring presence inside. KeKe McKinney, Kentucky’s best interior defender, missed the season finale due to injury, and her availability will be key if Kentucky advances to meet Mississippi State.

Kentucky enters the tournament on a bit of a run as winners of seven of their last eight games. That stretch included a win over South Carolina, and the only loss was a home setback to A&M. Missouri is their likely quarterfinal opponent, and UK held the potent Missouri attack to just 41 points in Lexington earlier this year.

5) Missouri (21-9, 10-6) (LY-6th, PS-5th): Sophie Cunningham’s swan song has been a muted success. Missouri has been on the outside of the rankings for much of the season, but they did claim the season’s most impressive win with a road victory at Mississippi State. As one of the few teams that fell in line with preseason expectations, the Tigers are where most thought they’d be. How they got there is more interesting: Mizzou has the win over MSU, but they also have one of the more inexplicable losses of the year against Florida.

Cunningham made an immediate impact as a freshman, and she’s remained one of the SEC’s most consistent performers for all four seasons. At 6’1″, Cunningham can play outside or inside posting up smaller guards. SEC fans know she’s not afraid to do the dirty work, and she’s second on the team in rebounding. The team got a boost midseason when senior forward Cierra Porter rejoined the team after stepping away due to chronic knee problems. A key player this season has been wing Amber Smith. Smith averages over 12 PPG, leads the team in rebounding, and seems poised to inherit the leadership role when Cunningham and Porter move on next season.

Missouri no longer leads the SEC in three-point attempts – Arkansas and Florida have attempted more. But Missouri again leads the conference in three-pointers made. Six players have made at least 20 three-pointers. One thing to watch out for with Missouri in turnovers. They were already near the bottom of the league in turnovers and then freshman guard Akira Levy, a key ballhandler off the bench, was lost for the season at Auburn.

6) Auburn (9-7, 21-8) (LY-10th, PS-8th): Stingy defense and a smothering press have been the hallmarks of nearly every Terri Williams-Flournoy Auburn team. The offense hasn’t always come along, and that’s held the program back. That’s changed this year: the Auburn offense has improved enough to turn those defensive stops into scoring opportunities, and wins have followed. The Tigers reached 20 wins for the first time under Williams-Flournoy in a season that might’ve been pivotal in her future at Auburn. Auburn looked like an iffy NCAA tournament team for most of the season, but late wins over Missouri and LSU have made them a likely invitee.

Senior Janiah McKay is the closest thing the Tigers have to a standout player, but their top five scorers are all between 13.8 and 9.8 PPG. Four of those top scorers also have at least 50 steals, showing how much the lines are blurred between defense and offense on this team. Auburn won’t attempt a ton of outside shots, though Daisa Alexander is always a threat to hit a three-pointer. They’re most at home scoring in transition created by their pressure defense. Auburn played Texas A&M to within two points earlier in the season, and Auburn won’t be afraid of a potential rematch in the quarterfinals especially without Chennedy Carter on the court.

7) Georgia (9-7, 18-11) (LY-3rd, PS-4th): Joni Taylor made a name for herself in her first three seasons as Georgia’s coach by exceeding expectations. Last year the Lady Dogs tied for second place in the SEC and earned a national top 16 seed. With a leading scorer returning and an impact freshman class maturing, the expectation for this year was only a slight step back. Georgia began the year ranked in the top 20.

Though Georgia kept alive slim hopes for a fourth-place finish until the final day of the regular season, it hasn’t been the season many expected of Georgia. Injuries played a role, but even key starters have struggled with turnovers and foul trouble all season. Georgia’s conference record is partially a factor of schedule: the Lady Dogs’ three home-and-home opponents are all seeded 10th or lower, and five of Georgia’s nine conference wins came against that group. So Georgia’s 7-seed is just about right. They haven’t defeated anyone seeded higher, and they’ve only lost one game (minus point guard Taja Cole) to teams seeded below them.

Even with a winning record in conference, Georgia will likely have to win the SEC tournament to return to the NCAA tournament. The Lady Dogs head to Greenville with an RPI below 100. That’s a result of a weak schedule and no wins against the few quality teams on that schedule. Winning the tournament is a big job, but there is at least a couple of reasons for hope. Georgia might not have beaten the best opponents on its schedule, but the Lady Dogs have been competitive. They took Maryland to the final minute, led in the fourth quarter on the road at both Mississippi State and South Carolina, and had opportunities to beat A&M and Kentucky in Athens. To advance in this tournament Georgia must find something that’s been missing nearly all season – the players able and willing to take over these competitive close games. Another reason for optimism is that Georgia played their best basketball at the end of the season. They won five of their last seven with narrow losses to quality South Carolina and Kentucky teams. Georgia should at least be confident each time they take the court in Greenville.

Georgia has just one senior, forward Caliya Robinson, and they lean on her at both ends of the court. Robinson is the team’s leading scorer, rebounder, shotblocker, and is even third on the team in assists and steals. PG Taja Cole leads the SEC in assists and, after only two years, is already among the top five in career assists at Georgia. Cole can also get to the basket, hit a big outside shot, and often draws the team’s most difficult defensive assignment. Given their importance to the team, it’s unfortunate that Robinson and Cole also commit the most fouls. Cole is an aggressive on-ball defender who leads Georgia in steals but sometimes finds herself taken out of a game early due to foul trouble. Robinson, as is the case with so many outstanding shotblockers, sometimes takes herself out of good defensive position in order to set up for a block, and crafty shooters can use that to draw fouls. Turnovers have also been a problem for Georgia. The team is in the bottom third of the league in turnovers, and they’ve struggled against pressure. The Lady Dogs are actually third in the SEC in shooting percentage, but too often they’ve turned the ball over before getting a shot off. For Georgia to advance, they’ll need to keep the turnovers down and to have both Robinson and Cole valuing their foul count and available as much as possible.

8) Tennessee (7-9, 18-11) (LY-7th, PS-3rd): Wow. Apart from identifying the final potential NCAA tournament #1 seed, the dominant national story in February was whether the Lady Vols would miss the Big Dance for the first time in tournament history. The Lady Vols are the only program to have participated in every tournament, and that distinction is on thin ice. They seemed to have saved themselves with a sweep of Auburn and a win at Missouri, but an inexplicable home loss to Vanderbilt in the final week might have the Lady Vols disappointed on Selection Monday.

Tennessee’s issue is a common one for SEC teams this season: a lack of quality wins. The Lady Vols are just 1-6 against ranked opponents, and a win over Texas is the lone feather in their cap. Their nonconference schedule wasn’t bad, but they fell to Stanford and Notre Dame in the rare opportunities they had to make a national statement. I don’t think anyone was prepared for the six-game losing streak in January that shocked the nation and left Tennessee at 1-5 in conference. They’ve fought back to salvage their NCAA tournament chances, but February losses to Mississippi State and Texas A&M show that their resurgence was more a factor of opponent quality rather than a program turning a corner.

As usual, Tennessee is at the top of the conference in rebounding, and their attacking defensive style hasn’t changed. If you had to put a finger on the reason for their struggles this year, it’s a lack of veteran leadership. Even last season’s team had Jamie Nared to turn to. Senior Meme Jackson has fallen off in conference play and has only reached double figures twice since the conference opener. Tennessee’s three leading scorers are underclassmen, and that’s led to some prolonged scoring droughts. Sophomore point guard Evina Westbrook leads the team in scoring and assists. Rennia Davis averaged over 11 PPG as a freshman, but she has only made small improvement as a sophomore. Tennessee also hasn’t replaced the impact of Mercedes Russell inside. Senior forward Cheridene Green averages under 10 PPG, and Rennia Davis, a wing, is right up there as the team’s leading rebounder.

Tennessee is talented, but their finish in the standings means they’ll be facing Mississippi State if they can advance beyond Thursday. Their season and a piece of women’s college basketball history could be on the line in that game.

9) LSU (7-9, 16-12) (LY-4th, PS-9th): LSU is also right about where we expected they would be. Their style is typical of most Nikki Fargas teams – tough matchup zone defense, physical interior play, and almost all of the offense coming inside the paint. LSU’s problem is one they’ve faced quite a bit recently: scoring. Only Florida and Ole Miss score less, and even the best defenses need to put points on the board. When the system works, the Tigers are capable of wins over teams like FSU and Texas A&M. It’s equally capable of some ugly low point totals including a 46-point showing in the season finale at home against Auburn.

The Tigers dropped their final three games of the season and find themselves in a virtual play-in game against Tennessee for a spot in the NCAA tournament.

10) Arkansas (6-10, 17-13) (LY-13th, PS-11th): A 5-2 start in conference play highlighted by a win at Tennessee had everyone talking about Arkansas as a surprise team perhaps a bit ahead of schedule in Mike Neighbors’ second season. Neighbors imported his entertaining up-tempo brand of offense from Washington, and the roster is beginning to resemble what he needs to run that kind of system. That early momentum crashed to a halt during a six-game losing streak bookended by losses to Georgia. Arkansas was able to get a win over Ole Miss but finished the season losing eight of their last nine. This is still a dangerous team because of the way they can score. The offense is capable of putting pressure on opponents to keep up. Chelsea Dungee transferred in from Oklahoma to become the team’s leading scorer and is second in the league behind only Chennedy Carter. Dungee and Malica Monk form a capable backcourt, but Arkansas has six players who have attempted at least 70 three-pointers. Almost anyone is capable of stepping out and knocking one down, and that’s what makes the team fun to watch and dangerous to defend. The consistency (and defense) isn’t quite there yet, and that’s turned a promising start into another step in the rebuilding process.

11) Alabama (5-11, 13-16) (LY-8th, PS-10th): On a team that lost so much production due to graduation, one of the SEC’s most exciting newcomers is in Tuscaloosa. Cierra Johnson, last season’s JUCO player of the year, made an immediate impact and became Bama’s leading scorer. Johnson is Alabama’s Chennedy Carter: she can take over a game and score from outside or attacking the basket. Forward Jasmine Walker has had some big moments as a frontcourt complement to Johnson, but Walker’s production has been less consistent against better opponents. PG Jordan Lewis was lost to injury earlier in the season, and it’s been the team’s downfall. Alabama leads the SEC in turnovers, and Johnson has often been a victim of the turnover bug as so much of the offense is forced to flow through her. Though the program didn’t completely recover from losing so many seniors from the 2018 team, the Tide’s quality has shown up in several decent wins against Clemson, Virginia, Tennessee, and Georgia as well as a 3-point loss at South Carolina.

12) Ole Miss (3-13, 9-21) (LY-14th, PS-14th): Ole Miss moved out of the basement with a nice stretch in January that saw consecutive wins over Kentucky (in Lexington!) and Florida. They were only able to win one game the rest of the way, against last-place Vanderbilt, and they head to Greenville on a five-game losing streak. Crystal Allen is one of the SEC’s top scorers with over 18 PPG, and Shandricka Sessom returned from an injury to close out her career.

13) Florida (3-13, 7-22) (LY-11th, PS-12th): It’s been a tough year in Gainesville with only seven total wins. Senior Funda Nakkasoglu is a dangerous scorer, but the rest of the roster lacks firepower. Only Arkansas attempts more three-pointers, but Florida only shoots 30.2% from outside. The result is one of the lowest-scoring teams in the league and a single-digit win total. Delicia Washington has a knack for hitting big shots, and Danielle Rainey can be feast or famine.

14) Vanderbilt (7-22, 2-14) (LY-12th, PS-13th): Stephanie White’s third season didn’t fare much better than the first two. The team’s most competitive stretch came in late January with a two-point loss to Auburn and a win over Ole Miss. A shocking win at Tennessee – the program’s first win ever in Knoxville – was a noteworthy accomplishment in an otherwise disappointing season. Boston College transfer Mariella Fasoula has stepped in to become the team’s leading scorer. That’s a credit to her, but it doesn’t speak well of the production from a couple of decent recruiting classes. Scoring defense is a big reason why Vandy is at the bottom of the conference; the Commodores yield nearly 70 PPG.

Post Transfers, young teams, and a story pitch

Tuesday February 19, 2019

“Transfer portal” is now right up there with “polar vortex” as a label for something that is very real and normal but which has come to represent a much bigger phenomenon.

The transfer portal doesn’t do much other than provide transparency to a process that had been done behind closed doors. It does take some power away from schools to restrict who may and may not contact a prospective transfer, and it broadcasts to the world that someone is available. It makes the process slightly easier, but that’s not enough on its own to open the transfer floodgates.

A bigger change is the softening (and march toward elimination) of the requirement to sit out a year after transferring. Critics warn of a free-for-all transfer market, coaches fret over the loss of control of their roster, and the term “free agency” has become pejorative. Georgia’s been the beneficiary of more generous eligibility waivers: Demetris Robertson was immediately eligible to play last season after his transfer from Cal. Now Justin Fields’s waiver has been granted at Ohio State, and all eyes are on the status of Tate Martell at Miami. I don’t know why Martell’s circumstances are all that different from Fields’s, but that’s the way the media is playing the story. You almost feel for Jacob Eason who sat out last season without seeking a waiver.

The unmistakable trend can be summed up by “early.” Players are arriving earlier: 14 members of the 2019 signing class enrolled early to get a head start on playing right away. Even players who will end up redshirting are able to play earlier now. They’re leaving earlier too. The past two seasons have set records for the number of underclassmen declaring for the NFL Draft. Graduate transfer rules make it more common for a player to seek a new opportunity for his final season. Those who don’t pan out or earn playing time right away will look to a loosening transfer process.

Coaches love to talk about their young teams, but that’s the new reality. All teams will be young teams. Successful coaches will be those who are able to manage rosters heavy on freshmen and sophomores with small groups of upperclassmen. It’s not just managing the numbers, though that will be a big part of it. The early signing period means that schools like Georgia that can fill most of their class early can spend the six weeks before the late signing period observing the transfer and attrition landscape and using those last few spots to fill needs with a prospect or a transfer. Coaches will also have to tailor schemes and how those schemes are implemented to make sure that they can be picked up rapidly and executed at the highest level by relatively inexperienced players.

Is there a model for how programs might be managed in the future?

The NCAA allows for an unrestricted one-time transfer in most of the sports it governs. You have to be in good academic standing, but there are only four sports to which the “sit out a year” rule applies:

If you transfer from a four-year school, you may be immediately eligible to compete at your new school if…you are transferring to a Division I school in any sport other than baseball, men’s or women’s basketball, football (Football Bowl Subdivision) or men’s ice hockey.

Most of us focus on football, but what we’re dreading as an era of free agency is actually the normal for the majority of NCAA sports.

With that in mind, it would be interesting to see coaches interviewed from other sports who have had to deal with unrestricted transfers for years. Softball would be a great place to start – Alex Hugo, perhaps the best Georgia softball player in the past decade, was a high-profile transfer who played her freshman season at Kansas in 2013 and was immediately eligible to play at Georgia in 2014. Georgia of course has also been on the other end of transfers. These coaches live in this world already and could provide some good insight on how to manage a program.

(I’m trying to think through how unrestricted transfers might play out differently in a sport like football or basketball versus, say, softball. I’m inclined to think that there would be more frequent transfers in football/basketball since one year of exposure in the “right” system could be worth millions. There are of course professional opportunities for softball, but the incentives aren’t as great in Olympic sports to maximize the collegiate system for future income.)

Post The case of the rooster that didn’t crow

Monday February 18, 2019

I had a couple of thoughts after reading Blutarsky’s post-Signing Day survey of the job Florida and Tennessee did (or didn’t do) closing the talent gap against Georgia.

First was complete agreement with this conclusion: “The gap isn’t closing, but the chance to break through on occasion may be rising for the two.” Tennessee and Florida aren’t going to concede anything to Georgia, and they have the resources to build teams that could challenge Georgia in years when opportunity collides with occasional peaks in talent. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the position Georgia occupied for much of the past 25 years. We know all about the quest for “relevancy.”

My second thought was how interesting it was to see a certain program not mentioned. If you go back a year, Tennessee and Florida were both reorganizing under first year coaches. Which school was seen as the top challenger to Georgia in 2018? Will Muschamp’s South Carolina Gamecocks. Granted, Georgia was as overwhelming a favorite as it could be, but if there was a darkhorse in the East in 2018, it was South Carolina. If you wanted to go out on a limb with an upset pick that was shocking enough to get attention but plausible enough not to be dismissed outright, you picked South Carolina to win at home over Georgia.

This isn’t an argument that it’s wrong to leave South Carolina out of discussions like this; it’s more amazement about how much things have changed in a year. Was their window of opportunity limited to just last season? South Carolina’s 7-6 overall record, 4-4 conference record, and fourth-place SEC East finish in 2018 were all below expectations. There were some close losses that could have gone the other way, but we could say the same about several close wins. Injuries took a toll, but from an outsider’s perspective it looked as if South Carolina never overcame three very generalized deficiencies:

  • A below-average running game.
  • An up-tempo offense that never really realized its explosive promise.
  • A defense (40th in S&P+) that wasn’t up to par for what you’d expect from a Will Muschamp team.

Their ugly shutout loss in the bowl game didn’t do much for offseason happy talk, but was one disappointing season enough to send South Carolina from top contender in the East to an afterthought? If we can boil things down to one reason to be optimistic about the Gamecocks, it’s the return of senior quarterback Jake Bentley. Bentley is arguably the second or third-best QB in the East, and his experience should be enough to matter in a couple of games. They get no favors with SEC West games against Alabama and Texas A&M, and Clemson should once again be a heavy favorite. It’s no fun mapping out a path to ten wins with Georgia, Alabama, and Clemson on the schedule.

The bigger question though is about talent. (We’ll use Rivals’ team rankings here.) Tennessee and especially Florida did do well this year, but South Carolina wasn’t too far behind with a Top 20 class and ten blue-chip (4* or 5*) signees. If you go back a couple of years to see how the 2019 teams might be composed, it looks a little better for the Gamecocks. Florida, SC, and Tennessee were all clumped together in the 2018 rankings at #17, #18, and #20. Florida had another Top 10 class in 2017, but again Tennessee and South Carolina were there at #15 and #16. The real disparity comes in 2016 when Will Muschamp’s first class was ranked in the mid-20s. Unfortunately those would be the seniors on the 2019 team. Florida can claim to have had an edge in the three most recent signing classes. South Carolina might be closer to Tennessee than Tennessee has been to Florida.

If the focus has shifted to Florida and Tennessee trying to close the massive talent gap with Georgia, a secondary story has to be South Carolina’s desperation to remain in that top tier of SEC East contenders. We could include Missouri and Kentucky in that group, but the Gamecocks would rather measure themselves against Florida or Tennessee in terms of resources, fan passion, recruiting, and what they’ve invested in coaching. They didn’t hire Muschamp to settle back into a perennial fourth-place SEC East position, and that’s the danger here. If Florida and Tennessee are making moves to become more competitive with Georgia, does South Carolina come along or get left behind?

Post Crean’s first recruiting coup

Wednesday February 13, 2019

Monday was a good, good day for Tom Crean and the Georgia basketball program. The Dawgs got a commitment from elite 6’4″ guard Anthony Edwards from Holy Spirit Prep in Atlanta. There’s some debate whether this is the highest-rated player ever to commit to Georgia, but that’s not important. If you’re even having that discussion, it means that Edwards is a player Georgia needs desperately.

Edwards is the type of attacking scoring guard sorely missing from the program, and his presence should elevate a talented frontcourt as Hammonds and Claxton continue to develop.

Some realty though –

1. Edwards can’t sign until the spring signing period begins on April 17th. Ashton Hagans was a Georgia commitment at one point last year. We don’t expect Georgia to blow up its program again this spring, but any Georgia football fan knows that recruiting doesn’t stop after a verbal commitment – especially when you’re talking about a prospect like this. There’s no reason to suspect Edwards’s pledge is anything but firm, but it’s not binding for another two months. Circle April 17th.

2. Transcendent program-changing lottery pick signings have had mixed results in college, and the programs they leave haven’t always been the better for it. Ben Simmons was outstanding at LSU, but his program and coach crumbled. Michael Porter battled injuries as Missouri struggled to get anything going. Darius Garland will never suit up for last-place Vanderbilt. The surrounding cast matters.

That said, Crean had to have a player like this. The common theme throughout the story of UGA hoops is lackluster recruiting especially when it comes to Georgia’s in-state talent. If Edwards turns out to be the beginning of a sea change in how his peers view the program, it will have been one of the most important moments in the program’s history. Crean had to have some credibility to start to gain the interest of those prospects. He’s not going to do it this year with results, so getting the commitment of someone like Edwards will open a lot of doors for Georgia’s recruiters.

So perhaps more important is what Edwards represents: an elite local prospect that stayed home. He told Dan McDonald from Rivals that “(Georgia is) my home. I want to put the school back on the map…I see that they need help, so that’s what I want to do.” If that message can begin to take hold among local prospects, Tom Crean will soon have the pieces he needs to realize his vision of an entertaining and competitive program at Georgia.

Georgia already has two 6’6″ 4* wings signed during the fall period, Jaykwon Walton and Toumani Camara. Georgia will try to take at least one more in the spring, and it would be ideal for one of the remaining spots to go to a point guard. Edwards understands the importance of bringing other top prospects along with him, and he plans to help recruit at least two highly-touted unsigned players:

“I got two of them, (6’9″ F) Precious Achiuwa and (6’5″ G) Lester Quinones. I’ve already been talking to them about it. Precious likes Georgia. Lester likes Georgia too and they are close friends, so I feel like we got a chance. I pray we have a chance.”

Post Eli’s Comin’

Friday February 8, 2019

I noted on Signing Day that Georgia still might have an immediate need at tight end despite signing two TEs in the 2019 class. Ryland Goede is coming off ACL surgery, and Brett Seither will still be a bit raw. That’s not a slight against either’s potential to succeed at Georgia; it’s a statement about the need to have game-ready tight ends available early in the season.

It’s not a surprise then that Kirby Smart continued to work the transfer pool after Signing Day, and the Dawgs didn’t waste any time signing graduate transfer Eli Wolf from Tennessee. Wolf has played in eight games at Tennessee, caught eight passes with one touchdown, and was named a team captain after beginning his career as a walk-on. He earned recognition as the improved player on offense after Tennessee’s 2018 spring practice. Wolf isn’t much bigger than Seither, but you’d expect that a few years in a D-1 weight room would have him a little more prepared to contribute right away. He’s remaining active before heading to Athens “working out five days per week with a personal trainer in Knoxville specializing in speed and strength.”

Georgia now has five scholarship tight ends: Wolf (RSr.), Woerner (Sr.), FitzPatrick (RFr.), Goede (Fr.), and Seither (Fr.). Smart might not be finished adding transfers to the 2019 team, but we’re fairly certain that the TE position is set now. With Wolf and Woerner set to depart after 2019, TE will again become a priority for the 2020 class, and one of the best is right here in state.

UPDATE: Georgia has added a second graduate transfer: 6’5″ WR Lawrence Cager from Miami. Cager had a productive 2018 season with 21 receptions, 374 yards, and a team-high six touchdown catches. His size jumps out, and he gives Georgia, by my count, at least four receivers (not even tight ends) at 6’4″ or better: Cager (Sr.), Tommy Bush (RFr.), Matt Landers (RSo.), and George Pickens (Fr.)

Post Dawgs had one or two surprises left for Signing Day

Thursday February 7, 2019

Even in a sleepy late signing period with room for at most two or three additions to the outstanding 2019 class, Georgia still managed to make some news on Wednesday.

The Bulldogs once again made national recruiting headlines when they announced the signing of Hoover, Ala. WR George Pickens. Pickens, rated a 5* prospect by Rivals, had been committed to Auburn for two years. Georgia rekindled their interest in Pickens when Jadon Haselwood signed with Oklahoma. With other schools including Tennessee and Miami looking to flip Pickens, he wasn’t exactly a firm commitment to Auburn, but it’s impressive that Georgia could make up so much ground so quickly on a prospect of this quality. According to the Rivals ratings, Pickens is a signing on par with A.J. Green. We’ll see about that, but at 6’5″ he’s a nightmare matchup problem with an ability to go up and get passes. In short, he brings the physical attributes and skill set you imagine in a top receiver prospect.

There was one reason Pickens didn’t have the high profile you might expect given his rating: academics. I don’t like to speculate about academic standing and don’t know Pickens’ specific situation, but enough recruiting sources have been open about this to give it credibility. It’s enough to say that Pickens has work to do and will have to watch his grades closely. As a signee, he’ll have all of the support and resources allowed from Georgia, but it’s now up to him to qualify.

Georgia would have to pass on most prospects with academic uncertainty. With so few spots remaining in this class, they’re not going to risk a nonqualifier with so many other quality prospects looking at Georgia. You make exceptions for 5* talent. Pickens is a “take” under most any circumstances. Now we wait…

We were almost certain Georgia would take a tight end in this late period whether it was a freshman signee or a graduate transfer. The Dawgs signed one of the best remaining tight end prospects in the nation when Brett Seither chose Georgia over Alabama. Seither began to draw interest from top programs late in the process, and he earned offers from “Alabama, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Miami, Rutgers, Syracuse and TCU since the end of his senior season.” Georgia’s urgency at the position got turned up when Isaac Nauta declared for the NFL and Luke Ford transferred leaving the Dawgs with only two returning scholarship tight ends. While there were contingencies in the transfer pool, Seither was an important addition at a position of need.

Georgia still might have to be a little creative with its tight ends next season: incoming freshman Ryland Goede is coming off ACL surgery, and Seither checks in around 235 pounds. It’s possible neither will redshirt in 2019 just out of necessity, but it will be asking a lot for either to become major contributors right away.

If Georgia had a disappointment on Wednesday it was Kaiir Elam’s decision to stay home in Florida. Elam rode the coaching carousel with Mel Tucker leaving for Colorado and Florida’s defensive backs coach moving to Georgia. In the end familiy ties won out. The December signing of Tyrique Stevenson eased Georgia’s immediate need at cornerback, but Georgia had worked hard on Elam. Good cornerbacks over 6′ tall with technical skills aren’t common, so we’d rather he be in Athens than Gainesville.

Most analysts had Georgia signing two players – a tight end (Seither) and a defensive back (either Elam or FSU commitment Nick Cross). No commitment happens in a vacuum. We’ve seen many times how a decision here can ripple down to create or close opportunities elsewhere. Pickens’ morning announcement signaled that something was up. I doubt that Georgia would have turned away Pickens in any event, but it was much less of a quandary to take the risk if the staff knew of Elam’s decision.

In the end Georgia did get two new signees. It’s too confusing to guess whether that uses up all of Georgia’s scholarships for the coming year. People obsess over the numbers every year, and the staff always seems to find room to add someone out of the blue. We don’t know how active Georgia will be in the transfer pool this spring and summer, but it’s doubtful we’ll see any more freshman signings this month. Then again, Nick Cross didn’t sign anywhere on Wednesday…

UPDATE: Well this is interesting. Pickens’ signing along with decisions elsewhere around the nation moved Georgia ahead of Alabama for the nation’s #1 signing class according to Rivals. It gives Georgia the top class for the second straight season. You can insert your own disclaimers about recruiting rankings, and I’m sure other services will have different rankings, but when people were talking about Bama’s 2019 class as one of the best ever, it’s worthwhile to note that Georgia is right there with them. At the very least it’s an indication that Georgia and Alabama once again were among the best at assembling the pieces they’ll need to compete for the SEC and national titles, and neither program is fading anytime soon.

Post An appreciation of Sony Michel

Sunday February 3, 2019

Five Bulldogs return to Atlanta this Sunday with an opportunity to leave as Super Bowl champs. Todd Gurley and Ramik Wilson will suit up for the Rams, and David Andrews and Sony Michel will play for the Patriots. Isaiah Wynn is on injured reserve for the Patriots. While at Georgia all five experienced some form of heartbreak in downtown Atlanta whether in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium or next door where the Georgia Dome stood, so at least a couple of guys will be able to put those bad memories behind them. The losers will be first in line to press the button the next time a downtown stadium is imploded.

All of them have great stories that brought them to this moment. Wilson is a survivor going from draft pick to the practice squad at Kansas City and has found a new role in Los Angeles. Andrews began as an undrafted free agent and is now a multi-year mainstay of a championship offensive line. Most of the coverage this week has focused on Gurley and Michel, two favorites from Georgia’s proud tailback tradition. Gurley is established as a superstar in LA and signed a record contract extension. Michel shut up some local doubters with a solid rookie season and has exploded in the playoffs with 242 yards and five touchdowns in two postseason games.

Gurley became Georgia’s feature tailback right out of the gate in the 2012 season opener against Buffalo. Turnover at the position had opened the door, and Gurley burst through with at least 100 yards rushing in four of Georgia’s first five games. He was the only back to reach 100 yards against Alabama in 2012, and so long as he was healthy (and cleared to play) he was the alpha dawg in Georgia’s talented backfield for the next three seasons.

It also didn’t take long for Sony Michel to reach the endzone at Georgia, but it wasn’t as a tailback. In Georgia’s second game of the 2014 season, at South Carolina, Michel lined up in the slot, caught an inside screen, and sprinted untouched for Georgia’s first score of the game. He got carries when he could behind Gurley and Chubb and had a big 155-yard, three-touchdown game against Troy. A broken shoulder blade against Tennessee came at a bad time: Gurley’s mid-season suspension and Michel’s injury placed much of the running game on Chubb’s shoulders. Chubb responded with nearly 700 yards in four games – great for Georgia, but it put Michel on the back burner for the latter portion of the season as Chubb kept on doing Chubb things and Gurley made his triumphant return.

In hindsight we now properly consider Chubb and Michel more or less co-equals. They became the tandem that powered Georgia’s 2017 offense. It wasn’t always the case. Michel wasn’t a bust as a true freshman, but it became a question of how to get him the ball. He was used almost as James Cook was in 2018 – some tailback work, some passes out of the backfield, some time in the slot, and even some special teams. Michel had over 100 all-purpose yards in the 2014 Belk Bowl, and only about 30 of those came running the ball. (There was even a kickoff return TD called back.) His talent and versatility were never in doubt, but it was tough to earn carries behind Gurley and Chubb.

Even with Gurley departing after 2014, Chubb was the standout through the first five games of 2015. Chubb had no fewer than 120 yards (and 7.3 yards per carry) in a game while Michel’s best production during that stretch was 75 yards against Southern. If there was an event that changed the production and perception of Sony Michel at Georgia, is was the gruesome injury to Nick Chubb at Tennessee in 2015. The immediate concern was whether Michel could take the increased workload with a thin backfield. Keith Marshall had never been the same since his own 2013 injury, and Brendan Douglas was giving all he had in his role. Sony proved he could be a physical back and was no frail scatback, but his involvement in the offense had been limited. Prior to that 2015 Tennessee game, Michel had never rushed more than 16 times and only had double-digit carries in four of 13 games.

Michel of course was up to the challenge. He had at least 20 carries in all remaining 2015 game except for Florida (because Georgia had a much better gameplan in mind for the 2015 Florida game.) Michel finished the season with 1,136 rushing yards and over 1,400 yards from scrimmage. That stretch of eight games to end the 2015 season changed how I and many other Georgia fans looked at Michel. He wasn’t Chubb’s backup, he wasn’t a positionless skill player, and he wasn’t too undersized to handle the workload of 20+ carries per game. He had proven himself as an SEC tailback, and fans began to salivate over a Michel/Chubb backfield returning in 2016.

Another setback delayed the arrival of the fully-operational duo. Michel fractured his arm in an accident over the Independence Day holiday, and the injury left in doubt his availablity for the first few games of the season. Kirby Smart was indeed cautious with Michel’s return: Michel missed the season opener and didn’t record more than 10 carries until late September at Ole Miss. 2016 proved to be an inconsistent year for Michel and the Georgia offense. Chubb returned to form with over 1,100 yards, but Michel slid back to 840 yards and four touchdowns. Still, Michel had done more than enough to earn serious consideration from NFL scouts, and some projections had him going in the third or fourth round.

Fortunately Michel and Chubb decided together, along with several other draft-eligible teammates, to return for the 2017 season. With good health, a capable offensive line, and smothering gameplans that offered a banquet of carries, both Michel and Chubb thrived as seniors and earned first-round selections as a result of their decision to return. Michel, for his part, came away with a career-high 1,227 yards and 16 touchdowns. His 7.9 yards per carry were tops among Georgia tailbacks. Sony saved his best for last as Georgia’s top performer in the CFB playoffs. His 222 yards and four touchdowns, including the game-winner, in the Rose Bowl was one of the greatest performances in Georgia history. Thankfully the memory of his fourth quarter fumble was all but erased by the wildcat keeper that sent the Dawgs to Atlanta. Even in the loss to Alabama, Michel managed 98 yards against Bama’s brick wall of a defensive front. His highlight was a 26-yard gain on a 3rd and 20 that led to Georgia posting the game’s first score.

Sony Michel left Georgia third in career rushing yardage. His standout sophomore and senior seasons were bolstered by over 1,200 combined yards in injury-slowed freshman and junior seasons. His legacy is about much more than that production. He was an important prospect from south Florida – one of the highest-rated recruits in the last couple of Richt classes. Fans will remember his huge smile and of course the jazz hands that meant another six points. He brought a passion for music and recording, was a natural choice to show off Georgia’s new DJ booth in the locker room, and even left Georgia fans his own musical labor of love.

By the end of his Georgia career Michel’s production and versatility had vaulted him from a mid-round NFL prospect to the first-round choice of a Super Bowl contender. He overcame yet another injury at the start of this season and is now the Patriots’ top rushing option and arguably the hottest backs of the postseason. He’ll return to the Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the second time in little more than a year with his sport’s biggest prize on the line. Brady, Goff, and Gurley headline the stars playing Atlanta this weekend, but Georgia fans know that Michel in a big game could have as much to do with the outcome as anyone.

Post A 2015 solution to a 2019 problem

Sunday February 3, 2019

Few positions took a bigger hit from attrition than tight end. Jackson Harris will graduate, Isaac Nauta declared for the NFL Draft, and Luke Ford transferred. That leaves Georgia with three scholarship tight ends: rising senior Charlie Woerner, redshirt freshman John FitzPatrick who saw action as a reserve in two games in 2018, and incoming freshman Ryland Goede who is recovering from a major knee injury. “12” personnel (two tight ends with one tailback) was a popular set under Jim Chaney, and it figures to remain that way going forward. Without a fullback in the scheme, tight ends had arguably a larger role as blockers than as receivers in Georgia’s system.

Georgia continues to recruit the position, and there’s a strong possibility that another tight end could be added during the late signing period. We should know by now that Kirby Smart will beat the bushes right up through the start of the season to improve the roster with transfers and unsigned players, so the tight end position is likely to remain fluid through the summer if scholarship numbers allow.

Are there other ways to add to tight end depth? In 2015 Aulden Bynum was a redshirt sophomore more or less buried on the offensive line depth chart. The 2015 Florida game might be remembered for a certain infamous change to the starting lineup, but Bynum also became another first-time starter in that game when he lined up at tight end. He saw action at TE in a couple of games as Georgia looked more to power running and wildcat plays late in the 2015 season when the TE depth situation wasn’t much better than it is now. The move wasn’t permanent: with the arrival of Nauta in 2016, Bynum returned to the mix along the offensive line.

Is using an offensive lineman as a tight end an option in 2019? Relative to most positions on the team, the offensive line is fairly flush. The 2018 season tested that depth, but there was still enough wiggle room to move Netori Johnson to the defensive line. Even if we ignore the tight end’s receiving role and focus on specific formations and situations, it’s not so simple as six offensive linemen versus five lineman plus a tight end. Tight end motion is a staple of Georgia’s offense – even the most famous play of the Kirby Smart era started with TE motion. The placement of the tight end usually matches them up against quicker defensive ends or linebackers. There’s a certain agility required of the TE even in power sets that might be asking too much of many skilled linemen.

There might already be a candidate on the roster. Tackles are often asked to deal with the same edge defenders as tight ends. Cade Mays stood out for his versatility and readiness even as a true freshman. Most of us remember him stepping in for Andrew Thomas at South Carolina, filling the right guard spot after Ben Cleveland’s injury, and even dealing with his own ailments as the season took its toll. But before that injury to Thomas sent the line into scramble mode, Mays split time in the first two games wearing the #42 jersey working as, you guessed it, a blocking H-back or tight end.

Georgia’s starting line, save the center position, seems set. Thomas and Wilson should hold down the tackle spots. Cleveland will be back. With so much talent on the line, it’s always possible that someone shakes up the depth chart. Assuming the starters hold their jobs, how does Mays get on the field apart from injuries or rotating in as a reserve? Mays’s importance as a lineman means that a return of the #42 jersey would have to be extremely limited, but that’s all the team would need.

There are a ton of variables: how many tight ends will be added between now and August? Is there even scholarship room to add more than one more? Are there any viable walk-on candidates? Will Goede be in a position to contribute early? That’s a lot still to sort out, and I don’t see using Mays or any other lineman as anything but a last-ditch stopgap solution. I fully expect Georgia to add a true tight end to the roster either as a signee or transfer. Because Kirby Smart is much more aggressive with his roster management, I don’t expect the team to turn to a solution that made sense in 2015. Still, we know how important blocking is to the downhill rushing attack favored by Smart, and multiple tight ends are often a big part of that blocking scheme. I don’t expect to see Mays or other linemen running TE seam routes, but I also won’t be surprised to see some creativity in personnel up front if better solutions don’t present themselves in the offseason.

Post What does Paul Johnson leaving mean for Georgia?

Wednesday November 28, 2018

“If you don’t want to play against (Tech’s option offense) then beat them every year and pretty soon you won’t have to.”

Kirby Smart, postgame

“Pretty soon” turned out to be a lot sooner than Kirby Smart might have realized. Paul Johnson is stepping down at Tech after eleven seasons.

First, the good news: Georgia probably won’t be facing the flexbone offense going forward. It’s not that Georgia wasn’t successful against Tech during the past eleven years; they were a solid 8-3 and undefeated in Atlanta. It’s more that the time spent preseason and during the year on preparation for that offense can be redirected to better uses. No one likes playing against the flexbone, and Kirby Smart pulled no punches about his distaste for coaching against it. Tech will of course still require as much preparation as any opponent, and each opponent presents unique challenges with their offense. Still, Georgia’s approach to Tech might be a little more “normal” going forward.

Is there bad news? Part of you wants a coach that drops eight of 11 games against you to stick around a lot longer even if the game itself was drudgery. There’s more uncertainty now. In which direction will Tech head? Will they abandon the option or give it another whirl with someone like Army’s Jeff Monken? There’s a chance that they could hit a home run and find someone uniquely suited to thrive in Tech’s academic and financial environment. Some might say that person was Johnson – Tech finished first or second in the ACC Coastal Divison in seven out of 11 seasons, and they reached two Orange Bowls under Johnson.

If Tech does drop the flexbone in favor of a more pro style or even spread offense, Kirby Smart will have a little extra work to do in recruiting. You weren’t going to get prolific passers and elite receivers to play in that system. Defensive prospects might not have wanted to get cut in practice every day. Georgia still has tremendous recruiting advantages over Tech, but a different offense changes Tech’s presence. It opens Tech up to prospects who might not have otherwise considered Tech due to the scheme. Georgia has no shortage of D-1 prospects. Georgia’s in-state recruiting should still be strong, but Tech can join a large pack of schools looking to nibble around the margins and try to pry an elite prospect here and there away from the Dawgs.

There’s a possible recruiting downside for Tech too. Johnson was able to recruit for his needs and get a lot out of players who might not have fit in other systems. With a more conventional scheme, Tech would just be one of many schools fishing in the same pond as Georgia, Clemson, Auburn, Alabama, Tennessee, FSU, and others. With that in mind, the next coach’s ability as a recruiter might be as important as his offensive or defensive choice of scheme.

Regardless of scheme, Georgia will head to Atlanta next November to face a first-year coach eager to prove himself against Tech’s biggest rival. Georgia hasn’t lost in Atlanta since 1998 (*), and a Tech win would give the coach instant credibility among his fan base and in-state recruits. Georgia might not have to worry about the option next year, but preparing for the Tech game will be no less important.

* – Jasper was down.

Post Georgia 45 – Georgia Tech 21: Peaking at the right time

Monday November 26, 2018

Everyone spent the week dwelling on stopping the wrong offense.

In such a decisive and complete win, there are any number of facts we can use to illustrate how dominant Georgia was: equaling last year’s final score by halftime, holding Tech to 66 yards in the first half, Fromm setting a career mark with four touchdown passes, Georgia more than doubling Tech’s rushing output (on fewer carries!), or even a season-high nine tackles for loss. My favorite though was a graphic showing that at one point in the game Georgia had scored a touchdown on 13 straight possessions going back to the failed fake field goal against Auburn. For a half and then some, Georgia’s offense handled the Tech defense with the same efficiency and ease with which they handled UMass.

Odds are any preview of this game touched on the challenge of stopping Tech’s unique offense. Sure enough, it has enough quirks to require extra practice and an approach unlike any other offense on the schedule, and we’ll have plenty to say about the job done by Georgia’s defense. But the level of play we’ve seen from the Georgia offense over the past month has been extraordinary. Georgia’s success rate of 72.4% against UMass was tops nationally last week, but it’s easy to shrug that off due to the quality of competition. Tech is no great shakes on defense, but Georgia was able to follow up a 72% success rate with a 68% success rate – the best in the nation for the second straight week. Georgia’s offense was able to maintain that edge and focus against a P5 defense in a rivalry game that started at noon with you-know-who looming just a week away.

It’s not that the running game took a back seat this week, but this game didn’t need that signature second half explosive run to blow things open. Swift still got to 100 yards, Holyfield nearly had 9 yards per carry, and the duo only had 23 of Georgia’s 42 carries. Georgia’s 285 rushing yards broke a string of three straight games with over 300 yards on the ground, but they had 172 rushing yards by halftime and shut things down in the fourth quarter.

Jake Fromm closed the regular season with another masterpiece. He was 13 of 16 for 175 yards and a career-best four touchdowns. ESPN’s QBR metric had Fromm at 99.4 out of 100. Two of his three incompletions came in hurry-up mode at the end of the first half. He completed precision passes – again finding the smallest window between corner and safety on a pass to Godwin. His touchdown pass to Holloman was a combination of patience and daring. He hit Hardman in stride on the deep ball. Georgia ran far more than they passed of course, but those receptions were what took this offense from very good to unstoppable.

It’s tempting to look at the defense’s results and wonder what all of the fuss was about Tech’s offense. Georgia’s defensive performance was the result of preparation – practice time was set aside for this offense during preseason camp and weekly during the season. Georgia’s scout team did an outstanding job simulating the offense. But all of the preparation had to be executed, and that hasn’t always been a strength of this year’s defense.

Georgia, especially among the front seven, played some of its best defensive ball of the season. The defense stayed in a fairly base look for most of the game, and there weren’t the waves of substitutions we’re used to seeing. The coaches identified some key players best suited to defend Tech’s offense and stuck with them. Ledbetter and Walker have thrived against Tech over the past two seasons and were the leading tacklers. Malik Herring earned his first start at defensive end and made the most of it, finishing third in tackles, leading the team with 1.5 tackles for loss, and getting credit for a shared sack. The absence of Monty Rice was a concern, but it turned out not to matter because 1) the line was making plays and 2) the other ILBs – Patrick, Crowder, and Taylor – stepped up in a big way. You have to go ten spots down the leading tacklers before you find a defensive back. Georgia’s secondary wasn’t asked to do much because the front seven were disruptive.

My favorite defensive stat: Tech’s longest carry of the day went for ten yards. You hear about assignments and discipline when defending the triple option because any individual mistake can lead to a big gain. We rarely saw plays on which Georgia defenders weren’t in place. Even better, Georgia was often the aggressor and was able to get off blocks and record its season high in tackles for loss. Success rate is a measure of a team’s ability to stay ahead of the chains, and Tech’s option offense is all about those steady drives. Georgia held Tech to a 31% success rate – it’s best result in that area since the Austin Peay shutout. Combined with the success of the offense, Georgia had a success rate advantage of 38 percentage points, leading Bill Connelly to remark, “It probably goes without saying that when an option teamhas a disadvantage of nearly 40 percentage points, it’s probably gonna get blown out.”

Special teams was the blemish on an otherwise complete effort. LeCounte and Beal got caught inside and Baker somehow got turned around on Tech’s kick return. Blankenship’s first two kickoffs were errant, and wind wasn’t much of a factor. He even had a rare miss from inside 50 yards. There were penalties on kickoffs and punts. Given that special teams might be one of the few areas in which Georgia might have an edge next week, get it together.

Special teams aside, Georgia finished the regular season with one of its best all-around performances. A team that drifted a bit early in the season has found its stride at the end and gave us five wins with no margin of victory less than seventeen points. Georgia has won eleven regular season games in consecutive years for the first time in program history. We’ve enjoyed two unblemished campaigns in Sanford Stadium and another perfect record against the SEC East. Now they’ve righted the Tech series in Athens and begun a streak in the series that might continue for some time. When Georgia has championship-level teams, it’s been tough for Paul Johnson’s Tech teams to keep up. 2012, 2017, and now 2018 were all pretty decisive wins for the Dawgs. Georgia’s advantages in talent, staffing, resources, and facilities will only continue to grow. Tech’s scheme is meant to level a talent disadvantage, but the gap between Tech and Georgia might be a bridge too far for several years to come.

  • There was a sequence in that dreadful 2015 Alabama game during which the Tide scored (on a blocked punt), fielded a Georgia punt inside Georgia territory, and immediately scored on a pass of 45 yards or so. A close game turned into a blowout in minutes. That sequence was on my mind when Fromm hit Hardman for a 44-yard score in the second quarter. Tech made the game interesting for a few minutes with their kickoff return, but Georgia responded with yet another touchdown. The Dawgs got the ball back on Tech’s side of the field after a questionable fourth down decision, and they went for the kill shot. Tech briefly had hope at 14-7, but that strike to make it 28-7 ended the game in the second quarter.
  • Speaking of that touchdown, you almost have to feel for the poor linebacker tasked with covering Mecole Hardman on a fly route. To his credit, he managed to stay in the frame.
  • It’s common for Tech to go for it on fourth-and-short. When the offense can get two or three yards by default, it’s usually not a risky move. But to attempt to convert 4th-and-6 on Tech’s own side of the field was either hubris or desperation. We’ll take either.
  • Not too much chippiness in this game compared with some of the other rivalry games last weekend, but the most excited Tech’s bench got all day was when one of their players got off the hook for targeting. Kirby’s a better man than I – of course you want to shorten the game and prevent injuries given what’s at stake next week, but that little scene was enough to go for 70.
  • Justin Fields is so good that he can now complete passes to himself.
  • Courtesy of Team Speed Kills: “The (Georgia) defense only allowed 219 total yards, 113 of which came on the Jackets’ final two drives.”
  • Tyrique McGhee spent a lot of time at cornerback on standard downs rather than Stokes or Campbell. That was another matchup-based decision: McGhee is a more experienced player who might’ve been a stronger player against the run. Campbell had a standout play though – a nice tackle for loss on a quick pass to the outside.
  • It was a small senior class recognized before the game, and there were more than a few whose careers had ended for medical reasons. But those who were able to contribute did so in a big way, and their upperclass years have been two of the best in program history.

It’s now a thing in some corners of the Bulldog Nation to diminish this rivalry or even suggest that it be discontinued. If you saw the involvement of the crowd for a dreary noon game or saw what the home win meant to the players and especially the seniors, you know this game still has plenty of juice left. As dominant as Georgia has been in the series, I can’t imagine ever giving that up.

Post Georgia 66 – UMass 27: Unstoppable

Monday November 19, 2018

One of the fun and interesting things about a game like this is watching players, some of whom seldom get extended playing time, showcase their talent. For this game specifically, it was the last extended home tailgate of the season and a rare low-stress day to enjoy Athens and a game. If you were bored by the game or put off by the opponent, being around one of the many bright-eyed fans experiencing their first Georgia game was enough to snap you out of it.

If the point of a game like this for the team is to, as Kirby Smart puts it, “get better,” Saturday’s results were…so-so.

Anyone who watched the game knows that Georgia had tremendous advantages in success rate and yards per play. That had mostly to do with Georgia’s offense. The Dawgs had a ridiculous 11.31 yards per play – a stat made even more amazing when you consider the offense Georgia ran for the last quarter of the game. Georgia’s success rate was a whopping 72.4% – the best in the nation last weekend. Success rate is a measure of an offense’s ability to stay “ahead of the chains”, and, again, your eye told you that Georgia moved the ball at will. This was an offense’s masterpiece and an opportunity for Georgia to demonstrate its firepower on the ground and through the air. It was such a complete performance that the element most responsible for Georgia’s recent rebound, the power running game with Swift and Holyfield, was more or less left on the shelf after the first quarter.

The defense was more of a mixed bag. Can we say that the defense got better? I’m not even talking about the 27 points or even 200+ receiving yards from Andy Isabella. Georgia was not sharp in tackling. To their credit, the defense notched three sacks (including J.R. Reed’s devastating blitz off the edge), but otherwise the defense recorded no tackles for loss. It’s not that UMass was explosive on the ground – they did have a 42-yard run but otherwise had no carries longer than 12 yards. The issue was more about the consistency of UMass to get about 4 yards per carry even excluding that 42-yard burst. UMass had a success rate of 38.5% in the game which is slightly below average but more on par with what a lower-level SEC team like Tennessee or Vanderbilt was able to do against Georgia.

Of course personnel matters – it’s tough to get penetration for tackles for loss with nickel and dime packages. Georgia substituted heavily as the game went on. The absence of Monty Rice had defenders on the field who were a step slower at taking on ballcarriers. Still, there were a few chances to make plays behind the line, and those plays weren’t made. The ability to disrupt plays behind the line is going to be much more important this week against an offense more than happy to grind out four yards after four yards.

  • Justin Fields stole the show. It shouldn’t have been a big story – you expect a quarterback rated by some as the nation’s top overall prospect to be able to pass and run well. Some people still had to see it in action, and Fields didn’t disappoint. UMass didn’t present much of a test in terms of reading a defense, and so Fields hit receiver after receiver. He had good reads on some option plays that led to big gains on the ground, and then Fields executed an RPO to hit a wide-open Nauta down the seam. Hitting Hardman 50 yards downfield from the opposite hash was breathtaking, but Fields’ willingness to take a hit and still zip in a slant to Ridley for a touchdown was as impressive in its own right.
  • Fromm wasn’t asked to do much and was a perfect 5/5. His touchdown pass to Simmons showed all we needed to see. Fromm recognized the coverage and checked into the play. His pass had perfect touch and settled in a small window between two defensive backs. Simmons did the rest.
  • Godwin’s muffed punt was as close as a game like this has to a moment of tension. Godwin’s only job in the “punt safe” look is to make a fair catch and field the punt cleanly, but he took an awkward angle on a line drive punt over his head. Georgia had forced three UMass three-and-outs to start the game but didn’t have another in the first half after the fumble. UMass scored on three of their next five first half possessions.
  • Eric Stokes is still learning, but his breakup of a deep pass was textbook. He didn’t fall for the initial move, stayed in a position to turn on the ball, and didn’t interfere while making the play. One of the better coverage moments of the season.
  • James Cook is an exciting and dangerous player in space. It will be interesting to see how he’s used in the coming years.
  • Penalties were about the only low spot in the win over Auburn, but Georgia played a clean game against UMass. Georgia was only flagged twice, and one of those was an iffy pass interference call.
  • It had to be uncharacteristic for a receiver of Robertson’s pedigree to drop a sure touchdown. It might just be a matter of rust – Robertson missed quite a bit of practice time and a couple of games with a concussion, and I doubt there were many reps last week on deep balls from Fields to the second and third groups of receivers.
  • Georgia plugged in another new starter, Trey Hill, on the offensive line and didn’t miss a beat. Cade Mays was held out, and Ben Cleveland continues to work back from his injury, but the line is hanging in there. It would be nice for a group of five to get some cohesive time together before and during the Tech game.
  • It wasn’t a big day for the defensive front with so many quick passes, but Tyler Clark made his presence known right away with a batted pass on the first series. A minor injury to Ledbetter meant more playing time for Herring.
  • Great job by the Redcoat Band and all involved for a day-long appreciation of the men and women in uniform. And what serendipity for Nick and Sony to have a bye week at the same time!

Post Georgia 27 – Auburn 10: 11 out of 14

Tuesday November 13, 2018

A leading narrative entering this game centered on Georgia’s mindset after clinching the SEC East. The LSU loss and suddenly credible challenges from Florida and Kentucky brought the first major goal of the season into sharp focus. With that goal accomplished and a long road trip coming to an end, the question was whether Georgia would allow itself to relax and daydream about the Everest-sized challenge looming in Atlanta in a couple of weeks.

Georgia fans familiar with how Kirby Smart manages the team knew that this narrative was a bit of a reach: to begin with, two of the final three games were against two of Georgia’s most bitter rivals. Beyond that, the Alabama game loses any national context if Georgia doesn’t arrive in Atlanta at 11-1. It’s likely true that Georgia needs a win over Alabama to return to the playoff, but another regular season loss would make the question moot.

In the offseason most pundits pointed to the Auburn game as Georgia’s biggest obstacle with LSU a distant second. Auburn was a consensus preseason top 10 team, and their opening win over Washington only reinforced that perception. The 2018 season hasn’t gone as expected for Auburn (or Washington!) since that win, and so we arrived at this game in a strange place: the team expected to give Georgia the most trouble was now a two-touchdown underdog, fighting for its coach’s future, and possibly now a trap game for a Georgia team looking ahead.

Before we get to the details of the game, I think it’s safe to say that Georgia didn’t look like a team with its mind elsewhere. It was much closer to the team we’ve seen since the Florida game: an offense thriving with an invigorated running game and an improving young defense that continues to figure things out. Georgia needed to be dialed-in for this game because, as we saw, Auburn had a very real chance of putting the Dawgs in an early hole.

It’s been a familiar plot for Auburn’s offense to have Georgia scrambling early. Often the Georgia defense will figure things out, and hopefully the game is still manageable at that point. It wasn’t surprising then to see Auburn have a little early success and even take the lead. That said, Auburn had an opportunity to put Georgia in its deepest bind since the LSU game. With Georgia’s offense struggling to finish drives and Auburn putting together back-to-back scores, a 14-6 deficit at that point in the game would have looked much more daunting than 10-6. Eric Stokes’ third down pass breakup in the endzone was a turning point: rather than going down eight in the second quarter, Georgia soon put up back-to-back scores and led by ten at halftime. Auburn never threatened again.

Auburn wasn’t an especially strong running team coming in, but it was an important job to keep it that way. Auburn still calls enough running plays to keep the defense honest, and jet sweep motion has long been a cornerstone of that offense. Auburn doesn’t have the bruising running talent it had a year ago, but it’s not short on speed or size at the skill position. It was key to Georgia’s defensive game plan to keep that speed bottled up. How did they do? We know that Georgia’s defense has done well all season preventing explosive plays, and this might’ve been their best job yet. Georgia forced Auburn to dink-and-dunk at an historic rate:

That’s impressive in itself, but Georgia tightened up as the game went on. Auburn managed just two scoring opportunities. Georgia wasn’t breaking, but they weren’t doing much bending either after the first third of the game. The Tigers were just 3-11 on third down. Even with tempo, Auburn ran only 57 plays, and Georgia was able to control possession.

The Bulldog offense set a few high-water marks of their own. Georgia was the first team to amass more than 500 yards of offense against Auburn since the 2016 season. Had Georgia not faked the field goal at the end (or converted it), they’d have put up as many points on Auburn as any other team this year. Even so, as with the Kentucky game, you can easily spot points left on the field. There were three trips inside the Auburn ten yard line with six points to show for it. Fromm’s unforced interception ended a scoring opportunity in the third quarter. Sloppy penalties slowed or even derailed drives. Georgia’s offense is undoubtedly performing at a high level, but the kind of scoring that might make a difference in the postseason is right there in sight.

Georgia’s offensive production starts with its running game. That running game looked a little different earlier in the year with Holyfield getting most of the production and the occasional explosive gain on a jet sweep padding the totals. But the running game has come into its own now with a healthy D’Andre Swift. You might not guess it from Georgia’s rushing numbers in this game, but the Auburn defensive front is for real, and Georgia had to be creative in how it ran the ball. We saw some outside runs. There were occasional traps. There was more wildcat in this game than we’ve seen all year. And of course the ultimate change of pace, Justin Fields, had his share of carries.

Even the most creative attack would’ve stalled without a great performance from the offensive line, downfield/perimeter blockers, and tailbacks. Auburn’s line made its share of plays, especially in the red zone, but it wasn’t able to completely frustrate the Georgia offense as it did at Auburn last season. Georgia was persistent and eventually broke the big one. Swift had his best and most complete game as a Bulldog. He set another career high in yardage. He showed his versatility by leading the team in receptions. And as well as the team blocked, sometimes you just have to plant your foot and make someone miss. Swift was able to elude defenders and get extra yards both on running plays and after receptions.

While Swift provided the knockout blow, Georgia built their lead with some big plays in the passing game. Auburn’s defense was stout up front, but there were some openings against the secondary. Godwin took advantage of mismatches across the middle first for a long third down conversion and then scoring from a five-wide set on fourth down. Fromm made good use of his reads, checking down to Swift for some important completions. Fromm did miss one checkdown on his interception – Herrien was open in the flat. The passing game was less effective around the goal line. Georgia tried to catch Auburn keying on the run with some play-action pass calls, but Auburn covered those well.

We saw a bit more Justin Fields in this game, and he certainly learned some lessons against a quality defense. Fields had a couple of key runs and conversions, and he had a nice completion on a rollout. We saw that Fields wasn’t necessarily a panacea for Georgia’s goal line woes, but that was good experience. Hopefully he gets more opportunities and freedom down the road.

Special teams had some shaky moments in the middle of the season, but it was a net positive for Georgia against Auburn. Hardman’s kickoff return jumpstarted Georgia’s first touchdown drive. The kick coverage unit discovered that you can tackle a kick returner before the 40, and Beal nearly forced a game-changing fumble. Hardman and Camarda teamed up on another gem of a downed punt. Godwin made sound decisions in the punt-safe formation and even secured the punt on which he was interfered with. A big punt return sparked Auburn’s comeback against Texas A&M last week, but Georgia gave the Tigers no such breaks.

Georgia’s run of 11 wins in 14 games against Auburn is quite remarkable given how closely the programs have tracked in their rivalry that goes back over a century. Kirby Smart has extended Mark Richt’s success with a 3-1 record of his own. The Bulldogs have survived a gauntlet of four straight ranked opponents with a 3-1 mark, secured the SEC East title, and still have all of their goals ahead of them. It’s the job of the next two weeks to arrive at the end of the regular season in no worse position while continuing the improvement we’ve seen since LSU.

Post Georgia 34 – Kentucky 17: Hoops season began Saturday afternoon

Tuesday November 6, 2018

There will be enough talk about Georgia and Alabama over the next month, but the 2018 SEC Championship matchup was set on Saturday in a pair of loosely similar games. Both Kentucky and LSU were projected to finish fifth in their respective divisions. They’ve been pleasant surprises this year, won a couple of signature games, and earned the right to host de facto divisional title games. Each could be said to be on a bit of a roll, and they were great stories. Kentucky was the upstart that stuck with an embattled coach and was ready to cash in on its carefully crafted experience. LSU was, well…college football is always a bit more fun when LSU is good, isn’t it? On a Saturday in November Baton Rouge and Lexington hosted a pair of top ten matchups, and both visitors took control early and left with convincing wins.

We’ll leave any Alabama comparisons there for now. But it was nice to see Georgia handle the moment with confidence. As much as this coaching staff preaches composure, it was impressive to see it in action on Saturday. A young Georgia team was able to cut through the hype and what was at stake and play their game. Even within the game the team managed to shrug off two unforced turnovers and keep plugging away. Georgia might’ve been more experienced in these high-stakes games than Kentucky, but there was still plenty of pressure on Georgia as the runaway favorite to win the division. The Wildcats had a single loss, but they had been pushed in recent weeks by Vanderbilt and Missouri, and Georgia was able to handle Kentucky as if the Wildcats were any other SEC East team without letting the outside noise affect how they prepared and executed.

Let’s start here: Georgia’s offense sliced through a legitimately front-to-back good Kentucky defense. It scored 14 more points than any other Wildcat opponent, and the foot was off the gas for the last quarter-plus. Likely All-American Josh Allen had two fumbles fall at his feet but otherwise had a single solo tackle. Kentucky didn’t sack Jake Fromm once. Even with all of that against one of the best defenses in the nation, it’s reasonable to say that points were left on the field. Two unforced fumbles in Kentucky’s end of the field and another debacle on the goal line meant at least ten more points for Georgia.

The offense continued its level of play from the second half of the Florida game. Georgia drives at Kentucky ended more often with fumbles (two) than punts (one). The Dawgs scored on six out of nine possessions. Jake Fromm didn’t complete any passes longer than 20 yards, but this wasn’t a game in which Georgia had to throw often. Fromm was efficient, got timely receptions from Nauta, Holloman, and others, and the running game took care of the rest.

You can’t mention Georgia’s offense without acknowledging the job of the offensive line. Fromm remained upright when he had to pass, and Georgia’s backfield had enough room to shatter Kentucky’s season highs in rushing yards allowed. An injury to center Lamont Gaillard meant even more shuffling as freshman Trey Hill played nearly all of the game. Hill’s inexperience proved costly on a couple of errant snaps, but he wasn’t a liability in blocking. Later Cade Mays went out with a stinger, but the offense was still able to drive and get enough points to hold off any serious comeback attempt.

Georgia’s run defense was challenged, and it performed well, though Kentucky was forced to go away from its bread-and-butter as they fell behind. What impressed me most was how prepared Georgia was for what Smart Football calls “constraint plays.” Those are the plays an offense must have to keep a defense honest so that your offensive strength can function. For a run-heavy team like Kentucky, you have to make a defense pay for cheating up against the run and focusing on Snell. I can recall a handful of plays Saturday – and even one attempted receiver pass – that fizzled because of Georgia’s coverage downfield. Julian Rochester disrupted a deep pass play with a hit on the quarterback. Georgia’s edge players handled bootlegs and even came away with a couple of sacks. QB Terry Wilson, who burned Florida on the ground with over 100 yards, had just 12 yards against Georgia.

The focus was on Benny Snell, and Kentucky’s star tailback was held to 73 yards and under 4 yards per carry. Kentucky as a team rushed for just 84 yards, and they simply don’t have the firepower in the passing game to overcome that production. Georgia focused on stopping the run first, and its front seven were as active as they’ve been all season. Four of Georgia’s top five tacklers were linemen or linebackers, and that’s something we haven’t seen a lot of. Monty Rice led the team in tackles, and his emergence as he returns to better health will be key down the stretch and into the postseason. Jonathan Ledbetter was second in tackles and likely had his best game of the year. He read Kentucky’s final play perfectly and shut down any chance of a fourth down conversion. Robert Beal missed the Florida game for personal reasons, but he’s had two consecutive solid games now at LSU and Kentucky.

It’s true that Kentucky had some success on shorter passes. Terry Wilson isn’t a 79% passer, but Georgia allowed a lot of stuff underneath especially after building a 28-3 lead. More often than not, Georgia was able to keep Kentucky from stringing enough conversions together to create scoring opportunities. If there’s one area to improve on for the defense, it was Kentucky going 9-for-13 on third downs. They’re right around 42% on the season. LSU’s ability to sustain drives led to the Tigers running 80+ plays and Georgia’s defense wearing down, and Kentucky had been able to put away several close games this season with punishing fourth quarter drives.

The game started well for Kentucky. Georgia’s touchdown after a long punt return made the Wildcats play from behind, but Kentucky moved and controlled the ball. At one point in the second quarter, Kentucky enjoyed about a 16:00-5:00 possession advantage. Georgia didn’t force a three-and-out until the end of the first half. Kentucky’s lone scoring drive of the first half lasted for 15 plays and nearly 8 minutes. The Bulldog defense, as they’ve done for much of the season, limited the damage from these drives. All it meant was that the offense had fewer possessions to work with, and the game was still in question at halftime.

Fortunately Georgia was able to turn that around beginning with a long touchdown drive of their own. The Dawgs eventually flipped the time of possession imbalance and ended with a 3-minute advantage as the Georgia running game took over.

Georgia left Athens a month ago with a perfect record but fairly untested and without much more than bowl eligibility to show for it. They went on the road to face three teams rated in the top ten (at the time.) They picked up a loss, but also two of the best wins of the season. Georgia returns home knowing a lot more about itself with an identity (re)emerging on offense and a young defense beginning to find some answers. It also returns home as SEC East champions – an accomplishment that should never be overlooked. With that achievement in the bag, the team can focus on finishing out the regular season at home and dealing with challenges from two bitter rivals.

  • No doubt that Holyfield has taken a step forward this year, but there’s something special about a fully operational D’Andre Swift. Swift had his second straight 100+ yard game, made a big catch out of the backfield on Georgia’s last drive of the first half, and of course took your breath away with a pair of touchdowns.
  • As impressive as Swift’s touchdown runs were, his most important run might’ve been a third down draw in the second quarter. Georgia’s defense had been on the field for almost eight minutes, and the offense faced a possible three-and-out. Georgia chose to run on several third downs, and this was a significant conversion that started Georgia’s second scoring drive.
  • Not much to say about another goal line failure (other than agreeing with Kirby Smart that it was “f—ing awful.”) But I was sure at some point we’d see this play from the SEC Championship – a fake toss with a releasing tight end. That’s still in the playbook, right?
  • A jet sweep on 3rd-and-1 at Florida was ridiculed at Florida, but the same play to Stanley on 1st-and-10 after consecutive Holyfield runs between the tackles was a great example of a constraint play that caught Kentucky off-guard.
  • I’m looking forward to seeing more of Adam Anderson. He’s mostly played in a reserve role but is starting to see more meaningful snaps. That double-A gap blitz with Channing Tindall was a nice glimpse into the future.
  • Holloman has come into his own as a receiver, and there’s no bigger play to show him embracing the full breadth of the role than the effort he made to sprint into position for a key block on Swift’s second touchdown run.
  • We know that Justin Fields is so much more than “the running quarterback,” but that’s what his role dictated in this game. He had a pass play and actually had Hardman breaking open before Fields ran with the ball. He’s going to make a big play with his arm in one of these games, and no one should be surprised. There’s no questioning his toughness – just watch that twist and stretch to convert a 3rd-and-9 in the fourth quarter.

Post Georgia 36 – Florida 17: Back on script

Tuesday October 30, 2018

Georgia went into this season’s Cocktail Party with more pressure than usual on it. Regardless of the LSU outcome, the rise of Florida and Kentucky as SEC East contenders left Georgia with no margin for error. Add in the LSU loss and Georgia fans more dreaded than anticipated the trip to Jacksonville. A loss to the Gators wouldn’t just eliminate Georgia from SEC contention in the short term; it would upset our longer-term vision for a multi-year run atop the division. Worse, that vision would be shattered at the hands of a hated rival and a first-year coach. The loss to LSU was enough to shake fans’ faith in the starting quarterback. A loss in Jacksonville could have shaken faith in the program itself. If Mullen in his first season could topple what Kirby Smart had painstakingly built over three years, what would we be left with?

But as Kirby Smart said after Georgia’s 36-17 win over Florida, while everyone talked and fretted, Georgia went to work over the bye week. The defense didn’t magically transform itself into a tackling and run-stuffing machine, but it got better. Jake Fromm started slowly again, but he was composed and as good on passing downs as he’s been all season. The running game wasn’t breaking the long runs it did in this game last year, but it was determined and effective enough to open up the passing game. Tyson Campbell didn’t become a shutdown corner in two weeks, but he wasn’t busting coverages. Many of the same deficiencies we’ve seen all season were still there in some form in Jacksonville and will probably be there for the rest of the season. Georgia’s work over the bye week allowed it to play the style of game against a top ten opponent that had won out over lesser opponents.

Seth Emerson wrote after the LSU game that “the script, which worked so well for Georgia the first half of this season, was flipped on the Bulldogs in Baton Rouge.” LSU beat Georgia with a pounding running game, quietly effective special teams, and a defense that showed some vulnerability to the run but limited big plays. That was a good bit of the formula that had propelled Georgia to a 6-0 start. While the Florida game wasn’t a complete return to the script, it was at least a recognizable performance and maybe even added a few lines for the future.

I’ve seen a lot about Florida’s frustration with the game, and we’ve had some good fun with Gator players claiming they were the better team in a 16-point loss. In a way though it reminds me of our reaction to the LSU loss. It’s not a perfect analogue – LSU controlled that game from start to finish. But when you see Florida lament trick plays that misfired, missed opportunities to hit big plays in the passing game, Georgia’s occasional use of tempo to keep a defense on its heels, and a crippling turnover imbalance, there’s a familiarity there to how we talked about losing in Baton Rouge.

Defensively Georgia returned to a familiar look in Jacksonville. The Bulldog defense, for all its shortcomings, had been noteworthy in the first half of the season for avoiding big plays. That went out the window at LSU, but the Dawgs remained highly rated in that area and lived up to its rating against the Gators. Georgia’s run defense still showed some flaws, but Feleipe Franks’s scramble for 20 yards on the first play of the fourth quarter was the only Gator run over 15 yards. Similarly, Florida had just two pass receptions – including the 36-yard touchdown reception by Freddie Swain – go for more than 10 yards. Without great field position and explosive plays, Florida was forced to string together drives in short chunks, and more often than not they couldn’t. The Gators had only three scoring opportunities in the game.

As expected, Florida was tough to stop on the ground. Georgia made enough stops to force passing situations, and the Bulldog pass defense held Feleipe Franks to just 105 yards through the air. Franks didn’t help himself with turnovers and some off-target passes, but Georgia preferred to put Franks in a position to have to make those plays. He couldn’t. Franks had his best showing of the game given a short field to start the second half, and Georgia’s defense had to defend a single-digit lead for most of the rest of the game. They allowed fewer than 80 yards the rest of the way and gave the offense enough cover to eventually pull away.

Georgia’s offense seemed intent on reestablishing its own run-first identity. The first Georgia drive featured only one pass attempt and led to a field goal. But Georgia’s results on the ground were mixed. The final stats show a slight edge in rushing yardage and a per-carry average on par with the Gators, but until Swift’s late score Florida had a fairly decisive edge on the ground despite Georgia’s 29-17 lead. Georgia, for much of the game, found themselves behind the chains and in situations that had been disastrous in earlier games.

The offense went off-script in a very good way this time. Third-and-long had been a death sentence for Georgia drives for most of the season. Fromm had been ineffective (or worse) in obvious passing situations, and it was the inability to convert those situations that had so many fans itching to try something (or someone) different. For the first time this season Georgia was able to convert with some consistency on third down, win some tough one-on-one battles, and even put points on the board. All four of Georgia’s touchdowns were third down plays. If that’s a sign of progress for Fromm and his receivers, great! If it’s just a third-and-Grantham boon, Georgia must continue to move the ball better on standard downs.

The pivotal drive came at the end of the first half. With a minute to go in the half, Georgia had 22 total passing yards and hadn’t had a drive longer than three plays since the opening march. Florida had cut Georgia’s early advantage to three points and would receive the second half touchdown. Kirby Smart sat on two timeouts, and the Dawgs looked resigned to head into the locker room with a precarious 10-7 lead. A busted coverage opened up Isaac Nauta on an out route, and the tight end rumbled for 27 yards. Georgia went into its up-tempo offense, and Fromm quickly found Nauta on three more passes to move into the red zone. Georgia only got a field goal out of the series, but it was three points that seemed improbable just a minute earlier. The entire offense, Fromm in particular, found its confidence and stride on this drive, and they’d score on 5 of 6 possessions until the victory formation ended the game.

Georgia had their mettle tested a number of times in the game. The touchdown drive after Florida took the lead to start the second half was tremendously important. Georgia enjoyed a big shot in the arm to start the game with ten quick points, but they struggled to deliver a knockout blow with Andrew Thomas out of the game. Florida was able to stay within reach and pulled ahead with one kick return and their best pass play of the game.

The Dawgs faced another test after Florida held at the goal line. The Gators were obviously buoyed by the defensive stand, and it could have been deflating for Georgia’s offense. When Florida answered with a field goal to make it a one-possession game early in the fourth quarter, Georgia had to have some kind of response. The 3rd-and-11 completion to Holloman was one of the biggest non-scoring plays of the game. It required Isaiah Wilson holding off Jachai Polite just long enough for Fromm to get the pass away. Holloman found space just beyond the sticks along the left sideline and secured the catch. Swift followed with his best run (so far) of the game, and a perfect pass on a Godwin corner route made the failure to punch it in on the previous drive much less costly.

Georgia’s ability to put the goal line disaster behind them and put the game away is even more remarkable in context. This preview piece might read like a delightful freezing cold take in hindsight, but it did make a valid point: Florida hadn’t been outscored in a meaningful fourth quarter all season. Three of their bigger wins – Miss. St., Vanderbilt, and LSU – were put away in the fourth quarter. Excluding Tennessee in garbage time, no team had scored more than six fourth quarter points against Florida. There was reason for Florida to be confident about their chances in a close game, and stuffing Georgia on the goal line did nothing to diminish that confidence.

After the LSU game I wrote that “in some alternate universe in which Georgia won, LSU fans would be pulling their hair out over five scoring opportunities ending with 3 points rather than 7.” We experienced a bit of that ourselves in this game. Ultimately it didn’t matter, but settling for Blankenship chip shots from 21, 22, and 18 yards after first-and-goal opportunities gave Florida the window they needed to stay in the game (and even briefly take the lead.) With points expected to be at a premium against a stingy Kentucky defense, Georgia has to be better at cashing in on short fields.

So while the win was a much-needed shot of confidence for both players and fans, the familiar struggles defending the run and missed opportunities in the red zone should keep complacency from setting in. Georgia has another divisional title showdown ahead and then two rivalry games, and two of those opponents are built to run the ball at least as well as Florida was.

  • While we’d prefer seven points to three, Kirby Smart generally made wise decisions in those situations. I’m sure the temptation was there to punch it in on the goal line, and Georgia might’ve had time for one more play before halftime. But even worse than three points in those situations is zero points, and Smart learned the lesson of Baton Rouge and took the valuable points. Even the decision to punt in the second half was a good one. It was a 50+ yard field goal into the wind, and all coaches consult with their kickers about conditions and range. Georgia’s punt coverage made the decision look brilliant.
  • Two heads-up plays: first was Brian Herrien’s fair catch of a pooch kick following Florida’s touchdown to open the second half. The instinct is to take off and run, but Herrien’s smart decision took advantage of the new touchback rule and earned Georgia about 12 yards of field position. Second was Tyson Campbell’s pass interference penalty. Had that pass been caught, Florida would have moved to within a field goal and would have had even more confidence after the goal line stand. Florida settled for a field goal on that drive, and Georgia was able to widen the lead to double-digits on their next possession. Campbell had a rough day at LSU, but his “worst” play of the Florida game saved four points.
  • Fromm and the receivers deserve a ton of credit for the third down touchdowns, but the protection deserves mention too. We know that Grantham likes to bring pressure, and we saw blitzes on two of those three touchdown passes. On the first score, Florida showed blitz but dropped eight into coverage. Georgia, even with a shuffling of linemen, did well to pick up those blitzes and give Fromm plenty of time. Georgia’s had its issues with pass protection, especially on passing downs, but Florida’s only sack came straight up the middle on second down on Georgia’s first drive. Georgia’s tackles in particular did well against some impressive edge rushers – Wilson got just enough of Polite to allow one of the biggest conversions of the game.
  • The “Nauta series” to end the first half was spectacular, but it was as much a sequence of attacking Florida linebacker Vosean Joseph in as many ways as possible. Re-watch the drive and see #11’s head spin in real-time.
  • So many injuries have taken place since preseason camp that it’s easy to forget how thin the secondary was after Tyrique McGhee’s foot injury. McGhee was cleared to play in September, but it can take a while for a skill player to return to form after an injury. Like Swift and Godwin, McGhee might be close to being “back”. He recorded an interception and caused a fumble against Florida and had his biggest impact of the season.
  • We’ve seen some special teams horrors in this game – Billy Bennett missing two field goals in 2002, Reggie Davis’s muffed punt return in 2015, and Florida’s fake field goal in 2014 are just some of the recent disasters. Georgia’s kick coverage continues to be a concern, but solid placekicking and a game-changing punt made it a fairly good game for Georgia’s special teams.