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Post Making Athens a basketball destination

Wednesday May 26, 2021

As I read this piece over at Get the Picture, what struck me is how easy it was to see the Georgia basketball program mirrored in Texas State football. That’s not a cheery thought.

There are differences. Some players like Savhir Wheeler recruited by Tom Crean were certainly sought-after prospects, but, man, if this line didn’t hit close to home: “My whole argument is I can take the [high school] kid down the street that no one wants and no one offers who, after three years, you develop him into a good player, and he can leave.” Again, Wheeler, K.D. Johnson, and Toumani Camara were wanted and offered by good programs, but that doesn’t make it easier to see a player’s development pay off somewhere else. It’s especially tough when that “somewhere else” is a team you’ll be facing next season.

“The rest (of available scholarships) have gone to transfers, 11 of them. That after (Jake) Spavital lost 12 players to the portal. He has not signed a high school prospect at Texas State in his Class of 2021…”

That’s describing a mid-major Sun Belt football team, but it’s not far from the story at Stegeman Coliseum. Crean has at least signed a few high school players, though the current recruiting class is rated near the bottom of the SEC. Like North Texas football, Georgia basketball will remake its roster largely through the transfer portal. For the third straight season, well over half the roster will turn over. Continuity is impossible. The coach’s job now is to assemble a roster with a one-year expiration date and win with it. That might be invigorating for Spavital: “it’s given life to our program.” It’s proving more difficult for Crean though as the top performers from each team leave and are replaced with less-accomplished pieces.

The contrast with what’s happening across Smith Street is glaring. Sure, the Georgia football team has lost players to the transfer portal, and there have even been some highly-rated Georgia players like Brenton Cox to transfer out. On the whole, though, most of Georgia football’s losses to the portal have been typical of transfers in earlier seasons – players with disciplinary issues and players buried on the depth chart who haven’t showed signs of breaking through. Georgia football approaches the portal from a position of strength – as a destination. The portal is used to improve the program and not just fill out numbers.

That’s the age-old problem for Georgia basketball: how to make it a destination. It’s been tough enough over the years just to recruit players to Athens, and now the program is doing someone else’s player development. Players have recently departed Georgia for Arizona, Kentucky, Auburn, Dayton, and of course the NBA. That’s quality talent that could have been a solid core had it held together. The long-term goal is to make Georgia a place at which those players see themselves accomplishing their goals. The short-term imperative is to piece together a roster from transfers and recruits and try to hold it together long enough to accomplish something significant enough to make Georgia that destination. Even that is proving difficult, and even signs of progress like attracting an Edwards or a Wheeler are followed by two steps back and have failed to “give life to our program.”

The fans did their part. Challenged by Tom Crean to show support for the program, Georgia fans set attendance records. The setting for big moments like the 2019 Kentucky game was as good as it gets. Facilities are no longer an anchor holding the program down. What’s left? That’s why Crean gets the big bucks. It’s generally accepted that this will be a decisive season for Crean’s future at Georgia. With the number of decent perimeter shooters coming in, the upcoming roster might actually be more suited to Crean’s style than any roster he’s had at Georgia. But it’s asking a lot for another overhauled roster to come together in the time it takes to have an effective November and December and have enough wins in the bank to survive the SEC slate and deliver Crean to the NCAA tournament. That’s what’s at stake. As Spavital put it, “[if] you don’t win, you get fired. We gotta think outside the box here.”


Post What it takes to get us off the couch

Thursday May 20, 2021

Couldn’t describe my 2020 viewing habits better:

A number of fans were introduced to the pleasure of attending Man Cave Stadium last season and found easy access to things like restrooms and refreshments to be something of a pleasure.

As much as I hated to break my home game streak and go without one of the things I enjoy most, I have to admit that it was nice to set up in the backyard with all of the comforts of home steps away. Can’t even begin to calculate how much money I saved, too.

So why am I so excited to get back? I wrote this about opting out last fall:

For many of us the social element of gameday is as important as the action on the field. It’s an opportunity to bring together friends and groups from around the state (and beyond) and rekindle family bonds and traditions that span generations.

That’s the advantage the in-person experience has over watching at home. With the social aspect of gameday significantly (and necessarily) curtailed last year, it made it a fairly easy decision to watch from home. Now that it’s looking like 100% capacity and a fairly normal experience on tap for the 2021 season, I’m more than ready to be back.

I do agree that Barrett Sallee might be stretching it a bit saying fans will “never take the joy of watching a game in person for granted again.” It might not take that long either – ask me about joy around the second half of a hot September guarantee game against UAB.


Post Georgia’s talent pipeline flowing into the NFL

Monday May 3, 2021

I called last year’s NFL draft results “decent but not great” for Georgia. Georgia did have seven players drafted, but several of the higher-profile draft-eligible Dawgs went later than expected. We saw LSU’s dream season pay off with a record-tying 14 picks, and Alabama had nine picks in the first three rounds. Those were extraordinary results, but those are the programs against which Georgia competes on the field and on the recruiting trail.

Thursday’s first round of the 2021 draft got off to a slow start. It wasn’t a surprise to see Eric Stokes selected in the first round, but it was a little unexpected that he would be the only Dawg who came off the board on Thursday. The news got much better on Friday as Tyson Campbell and Azeez Ojulari were drafted early in the second round, and three more players followed in the third round. By the end of the seventh round on Saturday a program-record nine Bulldogs had been drafted. Six were drafted in the first three rounds. As usual, several undrafted players quickly signed free agent deals and will report to an NFL camp.

With the nine Bulldogs selected in 2021, 29 Georgia players have been drafted in the four drafts held since the national title game appearance. That’s the best four-year run of draft picks ever for the Bulldogs. There have been other clusters of years with strong draft results: 15 players were drafted in 2012-2013 and 2002-2003. No other time period in program history has seen this quantity (29) or consistency (at least 7 each year) of draft picks. That’s what you’d hope for as a string of highly-rated signing classes becomes draft-eligible. We can’t quite close the book on the Mark Richt era yet, but it’s fair to say that the Kirby Smart recruiting machine that kicked into gear in 2017 is now producing its share of draft picks.

I focus on the first three rounds since those players are more likely to make rosters, start, earn more, and have lasting NFL careers. Of course there’s value to be had in later rounds (and even UDFAs) – just ask Tae Crowder. But just as the odds are better for highly-rated recruits to be drafted, you’d rather be drafted earlier. It’s one thing to claim a high number of draft picks, but it’s better to have those picks concentrated higher in the draft. Having a top pick doesn’t guarantee a title (Stafford), but championship teams produce high draft picks. LSU’s remarkable 2020 draft class had five first-round picks. Alabama’s 2020 championship team produced six first-round picks. It was encouraging, then, to see Georgia have twice as many early round picks (6) in 2021 as they had in 2020 (3).

The next step for Georgia is to have more of its players called even earlier in the draft and especially in the first round while maintaining at least seven picks per year. Georgia has recruited as well as anyone over the past four recruiting cycles, and the talent pipeline seems to be just as full for the future. This is what I touched on after the national title game. Then we wondered how very good players become elite Heisman-quality performers. Now we ask how do obviously talented and draftable players become elite high-round draft picks?

This might seem like a secondary concern for Kirby Smart since job #1 is winning football games getting whatever production he can out of these players while they’re in Athens. Two things are true though: first, Georgia promotes not only the number of players playing in the NFL but also their earnings. Higher draft picks earn more at first but also have a better shot at sticking around in the league long enough to sign higher-paying contracts once they prove themselves. Second, while a single elite pick might not say much about a team’s success, a slew of such picks probably means you had a pretty good season. LSU and Alabama are the extreme examples, but it’s also not much of a coincidence that the most Georgia first-round picks (3) came after they played for the 2017 national title. More early draft picks will be a lagging indicator that Smart got it done on the field.

This is a discussion at the margins, but marginal differences distinguish championship programs. Once you get to the point at which talent and resources are no longer roadblocks, so much time and energy is spent coaxing out the fractional improvements that matter against the best opponents. Entire fields of study using terms like “Pareto analysis” and “80/20” have been built around all that goes into getting that last bit of improvement out of a system. If you look at the final SP+ rankings of 2020, you see that the margin between the #25 team and the #10 team is as wide as it is between the #10 team and the top four.

That’s where we are with draft picks. It’s difficult and a tremendous accomplishment to be drafted at all. We’re thrilled to see a record number of Bulldogs drafted, and the year-over-year continuity shows what we all know to be true: Georgia is a consistently strong program with consistently strong recruiting. It already produces draft picks at a clip better than all but a handful of programs. Just as the Georgia program is trying to make the difficult incremental improvements to move from a perennial top 10 program to a regular playoff participant, those efforts will pay off with Georgia’s draft picks coming in earlier rounds in better and higher-paying situations for those players. Six early-round picks in 2021 is a good start. If Georgia puts together another title run, the results on draft day could be even better.

Georgia’s 2021 NFL Draft Selections

  • DB Eric Stokes: Green Bay Packers (1st rd, 29th overall)
  • DB Tyson Campbell: Jacksonville Jaguars (2nd rd, 33rd overall)
  • LB Azeez Ojulari: New York Giants (2nd rd, 50th overall)
  • LB Monty Rice: Tennessee Titans (3rd rd, 92nd overall)
  • OL Ben Cleveland: Baltimore Ravens (3rd rd, 94th overall)
  • TE Tre’ McKitty: Los Angeles Chargers (3rd rd, 97th overall)
  • DB Richard LeCounte: Cleveland Browns (5th rd, 169th overall)
  • C Trey Hill: Cincinnati Bengals (6th rd, 190th overall)
  • DB Mark Webb: Los Angeles Chargers (7th rd, 241st overall)

Post SEC takes a prudent step forward

Wednesday April 28, 2021

From ESPN:

The SEC will not require fully vaccinated individuals who are asymptomatic to participate in the league’s surveillance testing program, according to an updated version of its COVID-19 protocols. As long as they have approval from their local health authority, fully vaccinated SEC staff and players also will no longer have to quarantine following an exposure to someone with COVID-19.

This is good news and a strong message from the SEC. Vaccination is our best path out of the pandemic, and there need to be clear benefits for those who choose to get a vaccine. This updated policy reflects the reality of what it means to be vaccinated and recognizes the growing understanding that vaccinated individuals are at much lower risk of contracting or transmitting the virus. It’s also an incentive for those who might be hesitant about getting the vaccine. Any temporary and minor effects of the shot pale next to constant testing and lost time due to quarantine.

Of course any vaccine isn’t 100% effective, hence the allowance for “asymptomatic” individuals. It does mean, though, that a rare positive and symptomatic infection won’t cause vaccinated teammates to have to quarantine. Those quarantined close contacts, many of whom didn’t test positive themselves, wiped out entire position groups and were a big driver of reduced roster numbers and canceled games in 2020.

Hopefully other conferences adopt this policy change soon while continuing their diligence. Though not all will be able or willing to receive the vaccine, the goal is for near-universal coverage to prevent a single case from becoming a larger outbreak. Widespread vaccination will not only mean full stands this fall, it will also protect student-athletes, staff members, support personnel, and others who come in contact with the program. It will reduce, and hopefully eliminate, the weekly uncertainty and disruptions that ruled the 2020 season and ensure the likelihood of a full season.


Post G-Day airs it out

Monday April 19, 2021

Georgia’s search for a fairly routine spring practice successfully wrapped up with the G-Day scrimmage in front of a limited crowd. It was an entertaining game on a perfect afternoon showcasing Georgia’s depth at quarterback, and no major injuries were reported. That would be welcome in any year, but it was an especially enjoyable return to normalcy after the 2020 season. Some key storylines that came from spring practice:

  • George Pickens’s ACL injury left fans wondering whether Georgia now lacked the big play receiver that would allow the offense to realize its full potential. Hope remains that Pickens might return before the end of the regular season, though he might elect to focus on preparation for the 2022 NFL draft.
  • Jermaine Burton had a scare with a knee injury, and the injury situation began to look like a repeat of the carnage of 2013. Fortunately Burton’s injury wasn’t season-ending, but it did keep him out for the rest of the spring.
  • Other receivers Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint and Dominick Blaylock look to be on track to return for 2021.
  • The unsettled secondary should be aided by the transfer of Tykee Smith from West Vriginia. Smith didn’t go through spring practice but should arrive in Athens soon.
  • A record 16 early enrollees went through spring practice. It’s a complete 180 from the offseason of 2020 when there was a new offensive coordinator, an unknown at quarterback, and spring practice was canceled. Almost the entire 2021 team was in Athens for this spring’s organized workouts.
  • The team was far from complete, though. Over a dozen players, including starters like Nakobe Dean, missed some or all of spring practice with injuries. All but Pickens are on track to be ready for the season.

G-Day did little to change the narrative that the offensive line and secondary are the areas to watch heading into the season. That’s good in a way – you don’t want unforeseen problems popping up while addressing the obvious issues that have been front and center for months. Georgia’s strengths looked like strengths: a diversified offense with weapons at quarterback and tailback, promising depth at receiver especially considering those recovering from injuries, and a defensive front that’s going to wreck shop.

QB1

JT Daniels wasn’t even a member of the team at this point a year ago. Since last May, he’s transferred in from USC, took over the starting job in November, and lived up to the massive expectations placed on him after Jamie Newman and D’Wan Mathis didn’t or couldn’t claim the starting job. Georgia needed a big performance from the passing game to beat Mississippi State, and Daniels delivered. He wasn’t perfect in his progressions and showed some odd mechanics, but that’s understandable for a guy coming off knee surgery and who didn’t have much of an offseason with his teammates or a new playcaller. He’s had that experience now, and he looked very much in control of an offense that’s expected to carry Georgia far this season. Daniels showed great arm strength and placement on a touchdown strike to Adonai Mitchell right before halftime. But he was just as comfortable checking down to tailbacks and finding tight ends, displaying more command and comfort in the system than he did in 2020.

Daniels’s comfort goes along with a quarterback room that’s much deeper and and more stable than it was when Daniels arrived. Stetson Bennett, a veteran with SEC starting experience and wins over Auburn, Tennessee, and Kentucky, finds himself in a tough competition to remain the backup. Carson Beck, almost forgotten between last season’s drama and the incoming 5* prospects, began to show the development and maturity coaches hoped to see. This depth will give the coaches the luxury of developing Brock Vandagriff, the touted true freshman, who showed both the rawness and potential that coaches will attempt to hone this season before a likely quarterback competition next year.

Defensive evolution

One name I was especially glad to see called was Devonte Wyatt. It’s not only because he chose to come back; it’s because his role could be a key to defensive success. With so much attention paid to Jordan Davis, other defensive linemen like Wyatt (and Walker and Carter…) will need to come up big, and they’ll have the matchups to do so. Wyatt got good penetration, and he and Walker were credited with two sacks each.

The roles of Wyatt, Walker, Carter, and the other linemen are coupled with how defenses are adjusting to more open and pass-happy offenses. With more nickel and dime personnel on the field, there will be fewer linebackers – especially the outside linebackers who are traditionally the pass rush specialists in a 3-4 base defense. The OLB position is still important; Nolan Smith had a fantastic G-Day. Adam Anderson was less conspicuous, but this scrimmage really wasn’t the setting in which to feature the blitz packages where Anderson’s versatility shines. The point though is that the role of the down linemen in pressure and disruption will increase. We’re used to them absorbing blocks, clogging lanes, and letting the linebackers clean up – contributions that might not show up in the stat sheet.

We should expect to see those linemen become less anonymous going forward. Their talent alone makes them tough to ignore, but their role and the nature of the defense means they could start making as many plays as they help set up for those behind them. Wyatt, Walker, and Zion Logue were right up there with Nolan Smith as G-Day’s sack leaders. With quick-release passes common in RPO-heavy offenses, you often don’t have time to wait for the pass rush to get home. The line of scrimmage has to be disrupted before the quarterback can make a comfortable run/pass decision. Georgia has the personnel to cause that disruption, and we saw on G-Day that it’s not just Jordan Davis.

Work to do

The most positive thing about the situations on the offensive line and in the secondary is that they’re still in flux. That’s to say that Georgia isn’t locked into a certain set of personnel and without options. There’s still time for offseason development and for individuals to make moves before the season. That’s a byproduct of and an advantage from consistently strong recruiting. But at some point coaches will have to make decisions, and G-Day didn’t offer a ton of clarity.

At defensive back Jalen Kimber might have looked more at ease than newcomers Kelee Ringo and Lovasea Carroll, and Nyland Green didn’t see the field. Ringo showed the speed to keep up with some of Georgia’s quicker receivers, and he laid what might have been the biggest hit of the day on Ladd McConkey. We can expect Tykee Smith to be plugged into a big role, and he should provide some stability and experience. Speed, Poole, and especially Brini reminded us last season that there are some experienced seniors who shouldn’t be counted out. The takeaway is that no one player came out of spring as the obvious answer at cornerback.

Georgia has recruited well on the offensive line since 2017, and five years ago we’d be salivating over guys currently running with the second team. What hasn’t happened yet is that talent coalescing into a confident whole. Some of that has to do with coaches still trying various combinations. That might be frustrating to fans watching the process play out in plain sight but is illuminating and useful for coaches. But it might also have to do with some players not making satisfactory progress to lock down their starting role. That leaves a couple of known starters, like Salyer, in limbo as we know he’ll start somewhere but exactly where will depend how other positions shake out. Ideally Salyer would play inside, but coaches would have to feel comfortable with Xavier Truss (or someone else) at left tackle. Truss has made visible progress since the Peach Bowl, but he’s not yet to the point of securing the job. The situation isn’t much more clear inside, and interior run blocking and pass protection wasn’t stellar at G-Day. Salyer could shore that up, but, again, we don’t know if he’ll be needed more at left tackle.

More…

  • You feel for Dan Jackson getting trucked by Washington and blocked into the endzone by Broderick Jones, but Jackson rebounded with a nice ball-hawking interception and showed why coaches have been positive about his future.
  • Again, this wasn’t the day to show off a power running game, but a healthy Kendall Milton makes this an incredibly deep backfield once McIntosh returns. The battle for that third tailback spot will be intense, and the depth gives coaches the option to feature multiple tailbacks if Cook’s role evolves.
  • Cook’s reception on the wheel route was the highlight of a prolific receiving day for the backs. On the other hand, there was some PTSD for seeing Georgia’s defense burned on another wheel route with an OLB in coverage.
  • Adonai Mitchell was a favored target and delivered a big game. He doesn’t have to lead Georgia in receiving; if he has an impact similar to Burton’s impact in 2020, that will go a long way towards easing the loss of Pickens.
  • Darnell Washington might not be 100% yet, but we’re witnessing him going supernova. The unexpected story at TE though might be the debut of Brock Bowers. The QB position has come a long way since last season, but the TE position has also transformed quite a bit since 2019 when Charlie Woerner was the only returning scholarship TE. FitzPatrick, Washington, and Bowers are talented enough to allow coaches a lot of flexibility with the position.
  • Special teams never gets much attention in these scrimmages. It was unfortunate that Zirkel was unable to participate. Camarda filled in as the second-team placekicker and showed good leg strength but not much accuracy. No concern about Camarda’s punting though. Kearis Jackson will be the return man, but McConkey seemed to be someone coaches wanted to get a look at.

Post Taylor’s next challenge: doing it all over again

Saturday April 10, 2021

It was a much-needed season of vindication for Joni Taylor. The canceled 2020 NCAA tournament spared Georgia the ignominy of missing consecutive tournaments for the first time in program history. The 2021 squad was picked to finish where it ended 2020: ninth in the SEC.

The 2021 team, led by a strong senior class, blew past those expectations. The team finished 4th in the SEC, reached the finals of the SEC tournament for the first time since 2004, and received the program’s best NCAA tournament seed since 2007. Taylor, for her part, was named SEC Coach of the Year and earned a contract extension and increase.

The trick though is sustaining that success and progress. Taylor wasn’t able to build on Georgia’s last trip to the NCAA tournament in 2018, and two disappointing seasons followed. Her contract extension says more about belief in Taylor for the future than it does about rewarding recent accomplishments. This can’t be as good as it gets, and no one in the program should feel that Georgia basketball is finally back. To be fair, the fact that we’re mentioning dates like 2004, 2007, 2001 (the last conference title), or even 2013 (the last Sweet 16 and Elite 8 appearances) suggests that the program hasn’t met its own standard for some time. Taylor took over a weakened program, but embracing Georgia’s legacy and making it her own has been a big part of her message. She deserves credit for a season that reminded Georgia fans of past greatness, but these successful seasons can’t be the exceptions.

Sustaining success begins with personnel, and there’s been great news on that front. Two of Georgia’s four key seniors have elected to return for an additional season as allowed by the NCAA. Jenna Staiti and Que Morrison were named honorable-mention All-Americans. Staiti was second team All-SEC, and Morrison was the SEC’s co-defensive player of the year. The return of a dominant post player and the team’s best defender will go a long way towards stability and success in 2022. These two returning post-graduates will join a top-15 recruiting class – the best incoming group since the 2017 class that featured Morrison.

With the return of Staiti and Morrison, Georgia will lose only two of their four key seniors. Maya Caldwell was a capable wing who showed good versatility later in the season dropping down to a more interior role. Georgia has options there: Mikayla Coombs and Sarah Ashlee Barker should see more playing time. The remaining hole is at point guard. Gabby Connally was an extension of Joni Taylor on the court and ran the offense for the better part of her four seasons. There isn’t an obvious replacement lined up, and the solution could come from one of four possibilities:

  • Next man up. Chloe Chapman was recruited as a five-star point guard, but she’s struggled to find playing time while splitting attention between basketball and soccer. There’s no questioning her athleticism, speed, and stamina, but her development as an offensive weapon has been slow. If she’s ever going to become a regular member of the rotation, this seems to be the window of opportunity.
  • The committee approach. Georgia might not have an obvious heir to the point guard position, but they do return several experienced guards. Even incoming freshman Reigan Richardson could contribute to the role.
  • Position change. Georgia’s assists leader last season wasn’t Connally; it was Que Morrison. Mikayla Coombs also had more assists than Connally. That might speak more to the nature of the Georgia offense – Connally often got Georgia into its halfcourt offense, but Georgia’s other guards were more keen to attack the basket. Morrison and Coombs did have issues with turnovers. An offseason dedicated to the nuances of point guard could help either Coombs or Morrison reduce turnovers and make better decisions with the ball.
  • Look for a transfer. The transfer portal is flush with players, and several have point guard experience. Georgia hasn’t been shy about taking an impact transfer (Coombs, Staiti, and Davenport.) Morrison and Staiti won’t count against scholarship limits, so there should be room to bring someone on if there’s a good fit out there. Georgia’s scholarship numbers might be fine, but adding another player creates a very crowded bench. Who comes off the court?

Georgia will enter the offseason with the same staff it’s had since Taylor became head coach. The continuity and stability of Georgia’s coaching staff is almost contrarian and refreshing in a very fluid profession, but it means that fresh ideas and improvement will have to come from within. The SEC won’t stand still, and changes will take place aimed at Georgia’s spot in the standings and their Coach of the Year. Georgia’s position is fragile; a handful of points separated them from an outcome more in line with modest preseason expectations. To their credit, they won those games, and there are plenty of players returning who understand how to compete and win in the SEC. Expectations will be much higher now than they were even a year ago, and exceeding them will be much more difficult. This is an inflection point for Taylor and the program: will the success of the 2021 season be the foundation for growth, or was it another peak in a series of valleys?


Post Smith transfers in: the sequel

Wednesday April 7, 2021

One of Kirby Smart’s first roster moves as Georgia’s head coach was securing the transfer of Alabama defensive back Maurice Smith. While graduate transfer rules had been around for a while, Smith’s desire to move within the conference developed into a dispute between Georgia, Alabama, and the SEC. The Bulldogs eventually prevailed, and Smith joined the Bulldog secondary in time for the 2016 season. Smith only played at Georgia for that one season, but he was an important piece of that 2016 defense and helped ease the unit’s transition into its dominant 2017 form. If that’s not enough, he made the play that turned around the 2016 upset win over Auburn.

Smith was successful at Georgia in large part due to his familiarity with the defensive system Kirby Smart and Mel Tucker brought with them from Alabama. That familiarity allowed him to step right in without much learning curve and make the most of his limited remaining eligibility. What’s more, he was able to help teammates understand what the coaches were trying to communicate and expect as those teammates got up to speed in a complex new defensive scheme. For his contributions on the field and as a leader, Smith was named one of the 2016 team’s four permanent captains despite spending less than a year as a member of the team.

Georgia again finds itself thin in the secondary heading into 2021. And as in 2016 Kirby Smart is banking on an experienced transfer named Smith to make a difference. West Virginia defensive back Tykee Smith announced that he’ll transfer to Georgia. Smith was a two-year starter for the Mountaineers and earned third team All-American honors in 2020 when he had two interceptions and 61 tackles (eight for loss.) Should the NCAA approve a blanket one-time transfer exemption for 2021 as expected, Smith would be immediately eligible at Georgia.

Like Maurice Smith, Tykee Smith projects as a Star (or nickel) defensive back at Georgia. The Bulldogs have questions and inexperience all over the secondary, but Star is a particular need. Mark Webb graduated and Tyrique Stevenson transferred, and the situation was dire enough that coaches were giving outside linebacker Adam Anderson a look at the position. Anderson is a gifted athlete, but covering slot receivers might not be his optimal role. We know that defense is evolving to feature more nickel looks to counter modern offenses heavy on the pass and RPOs. Being able to plug in a proven defensive back makes that evolution a little easier for Georgia without putting them in awkward personnel situations.

There’s another parallel to 2016: Georgia isn’t bringing in a new staff and scheme, but they are welcoming a new defensive backs coach. Jahmile Addae was Smith’s position coach at West Virginia, and their history together made Georgia a logical landing spot for Smith. Though Addae won’t be installing a new scheme, he’ll likely have his tweaks to technique and how he coaches his players. Smith can help his teammates anticipate what Addae expects. At the same time, Addae will understand how to coach Smith and should make Smith’s transition to Georgia’s system easier than it would be for a player arriving without a rapport with his position coach.

If Tykee Smith can have the impact Maurice Smith had on Georgia’s defense, it will have been a very worthwhile addition to the roster. Maurice Smith provided stability and leadership while a revamped defense found its stride. If Tykee Smith can do the same, it might be enough to keep a young secondary from holding back a team with championship aspirations.


Post Daring to look forward to an almost-normal spring

Wednesday March 17, 2021

Georgia’s 2021 spring practice began this week. A full spring practice is the first sign of a return to normalcy for the 2021 season, and we hope the team is able to see it through until G-Day. As with any normal spring we’re excited to get a look at the newcomers and how the team will take shape. Georgia should again be favored to take the SEC East, and the schedule sets itself up for the team to be in the playoff discussion. Here are a couple of areas worth watching through the spring and summer as we see if the program can take a step forward.

Keeping the band together. Even before the Sugar Bowl win over Baylor, the program knew that a significant transition was underway. By the time the dust cleared, just about every element of the offense would change from 2019 to 2020. Then came the pandemic. A new coordinator would have to install his offense with a new quarterback (himself new to the program), and it would have to happen without spring practice, over Zoom calls, and then during the limited contact allowed after June. Then shortly before the season, that quarterback opted out. The process started over again, and just one game into the season it started yet again.

Fans welcomed the changes after 2019, but the hope for 2021 is continuity. Georgia has already survived two big challenges to that continuity. First, key draft-eligible players on the offense – among them Daniels, White, Salyer, and Cook – chose to remain in the program. Second, the offensive coaching staff remains intact. It wouldn’t have been unprecedented for Todd Monken to jump back to the NFL after one season (see Joe Brady.) Dell McGee heads up the successful Georgia running game and can recruit with the best. Matt Luke could be tempted at another head coaching offer. Any assistant – offense, defense, or special teams – with experience at a top-level program like Georgia is going to be considered when openings come up. Georgia did well to keep these assistants happy and on board for another season.

So Georgia’s offensive overhaul gets what it didn’t have in 2020: the opportunity for a spring and offseason of work with stable personnel and coaching. There are still threats to that stability: the transfer portal never closes, and injuries could disrupt reps and conditioning work or even cost a season. But those are realities for any team, and Georgia is as well-positioned as any to make the most of a full offseason. We should expect a benefit, but will it show up soon enough to make a difference against Clemson?

How will the defense evolve? For the second straight season, Georgia’s defense finished the season #1 in Bill Connelly’s (ESPN) SP+ metric. But for the second straight season, elite offenses that went on to the postseason gave Georgia plenty of trouble. Is there a defensive response to the explosive offenses that now dominate the top of college football? Focusing in on one position – outside linebacker – might tell us which way that wind is blowing.

The outside linebacker has been the glamour position in the 3-4 defense since Lawrence Taylor terrorized NFL quarterbacks in the 1980s. Since Georgia switched to a 3-4 look in 2010 under Todd Grantham, outside linebackers from Justin Houston to Azeez Ojulari have been some of the standouts of the Bulldog defense and some of its higher draft picks. The position has also been the highlight of Georgia’s top-rated signing classes under Kirby Smart. The question now though is how to get them on the field.

Nolan Smith was considered a top five prospect in the nation two years ago. Adam Anderson was the subject of a fierce recruiting battle between Georgia and LSU. Against Mississippi State, Anderson played on 23% of possible plays. Smith played on 18%. Against South Carolina, it was 17% for Smith and 15% for Anderson. That’s not meant as a criticism of Smart’s scheme or substitution patterns; depth allows you to use players in situations that play to their strengths. It’s tough to argue with the results: Georgia was again at the top of the SP+ defensive rankings in 2020.

As Seth Emerson wrote in December (via Blutarsky), “the snaps have in fact gone down for outside linebackers because of the prevalence of passing attacks in the SEC, necessitating more nickel and dime formations by Georgia.” Georgia’s base defense even on standard downs might only have one outside linebacker on the field. Obvious passing situations allow for a sub package with multiple OLBs, but that comes with its own tradeoffs and isn’t a three-down strategy.

Of course attention will be on the secondary due to uncertain personnel and numbers. But the secondary and OLB questions go hand-in-hand. The trend might be towards more nickel and dime at the expense of outside linebackers, but that might not suit Georgia’s strengths. If tight numbers strain Georgia’s secondary, how might it dip in to its deep pool of talent at other positions? Can the pass rush help to compensate for inexperience at other levels? While the offense will use the spring to reinforce the changes introduced last season, the defense will try to find its best groups of personnel to adapt to modern offenses.

Who will be available? Not many people expected the 2020 quarterback situation to play out as it did. We knew about J.T. Daniels’ knee injury but assumed a normal recovery timetable. As the season wore on, impatient fans questioned why each week came and went without Daniels making his debut. The answer, as much as we didn’t like it, was that he just wasn’t ready yet. The starting quarterback is the highest-profile position on the team, so a constant Daniels Watch was unavoidable. Other positions receive less scrutiny. Players simply don’t see the field – or see it much less than we might expect. Arian Smith flew under the radar until his own November debut. Players like Monty Rice played as much as they could through lingering injuries that never quite healed up.

Anthony Dasher counts about 10 Bulldogs who will miss or be limited during spring including a few starters like Nakobe Dean. Most of these injuries will clear up, and some might even clear up during spring. Coaches might favor caution and keep others out of contact until preseason practice. And still others will linger on into the season, disrespecting the calendar of the season. Every so often these injuries become chronic, like Jonathan Ledbetter’s Achilles, and hamper the player for several seasons.

With the questions surrounding the secondary this offseason, the defense is counting on Kelee Ringo to provide some answers. Ringo was a gem in the 2020 signing class but missed the season due to preseason labrum surgery. He’s not quite cleared for spring practice, though he’s among those who might make it back before G-Day. Ringo might or might not have an immediate impact, but right now his availability for the season could be as important for the secondary as Daniels’ availability was for the offense last year. It’s not just what Ringo brings to the position. Ringo’s availability will determine what happens with the other unsettled positions in the secondary. If his recovery drags beyond spring and closer to preseason camp, it could begin to affect the outlook for the season.


Post Lady Dogs return to the NCAA tournament

Tuesday March 16, 2021

The #10-ranked Lady Dogs earned a #3 seed for the NCAA women’s basketball tournament – the program’s highest seed since 2007. Georgia returns to the tournament for the first time since 2018 and for the 34th time in program history. It’s coach Joni Taylor’s third trip to the tournament in six seasons at the helm, and the program is seeking its first Sweet 16 appearance under Taylor and its first deep tournament run since 2013. Usually a top-4 seed means that Georgia would be hosting the first two rounds of the tournament, but NCAA pandemic protocols have moved the entire tournament to the San Antonio, TX area. Georgia will head to Texas and remain in isolation there for the duration of their stay in the tournament.

Georgia received their high seed after a 20-6 season and a fourth-place SEC finish. They defeated eight teams in the NCAA tournament field and have won seven of their last nine games with losses coming to ranked Kentucky and South Carolina teams. Georgia beat Texas A&M and pushed South Carolina to the final minute in the SEC tournament, and they look very much like a team peaking at the right time. As you’d hope, the experienced senior class of four players leads the team and is largely responsible for the team’s success and better-than-expected results. Even with the strong starting lineup, Taylor will play a deep bench and has relied on bench contributions in big wins over Tennessee and Texas A&M. Team health is generally good, though guard Gabby Connally injured an ankle in practice recently.

The Lady Dogs will open the tournament on Monday at noon on ESPN2 against 14-seed Drexel. The Dragons won the CAA automatic bid by winning their conference tournament and upsetting top-seeded Delaware. Georgia should have a significant size advantage against Drexel. The Dragons have no player taller than 6’2″ on their roster. Jenna Stati and the other posts should be able to feast if they can stay clear of foul trouble, and Maya Caldwell could also have a big game around the basket in her newer role at the 4 spot. Drexel’s offense is led by guards Keishana Washington and Hannah Nihill. Washington had back-to-back 30-point games to lead Drexel to a CAA conference tournament title. Drexel, like Georgia, will look to be disruptive on defense. Opponents average over 18 turnovers per game against the Dragons, and Drexel gets nearly 17 points per game off those turnovers. Georgia has been turnover-prone this season, and unforced errors could keep the score down and keep an outmatched opponent hanging around. Georgia ideally will use their own stingy defense to create transition opportunities and not allow the Drexel defense to set up.

If Georgia advances, they’ll face the winner of 6-seed Oregon and 11-seed South Dakota on Wednesday. Oregon was a national contender a year ago behind national player of the year Sabrina Ionescu. The Ducks ended up with three of the top eight draft picks in the 2020 WNBA draft. The remaining cast played a tough shortened Pac-12 schedule this year and have a trio of single-digit losses to very good UCLA and Stanford teams. Injuries, especially to point guard Te-Hina Paopao, have seen the Ducks fall in the polls, but they’re a different team with everyone available. South Dakota is no pushover – they hung with South Carolina and Gonzaga and have won nine straight entering the tournament. Down the road Georgia could face national powers Louisville and Stanford.

SEC teams received seven of the 64 bids. They’ve had more bids in the past, but the seeding this year shows how top-heavy the SEC was. No SEC team is lower than a 7-seed, and six SEC teams earned a 4-seed or better. If chalk holds, the conference would have over a third of the Sweet 16 teams.


Post 2021 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Wednesday March 3, 2021

The 2020 women’s conference tournaments were among the last pre-pandemic events to be completed. There was an awareness and even a suspicion of COVID-19 in Greenville, but there wasn’t a fear or much change in behavior. We still packed into the arena next to fans from around the conference, enjoyed the restaurants and bars of downtown Greenville, and loudly supported our teams without much thought to the droplets and aerosols we were contributing to the air around us. In the two weeks between the end of the conference tournament and the scheduled start of the NCAA tournament, the pandemic hit in full force. The wholesale cancellation of the NCAA tournament was unthinkable, but a lot of unthinkable things became unpleasant truths as the end of March ushered in our present reality.

For teams like South Carolina, the sudden end of the season meant that an outstanding year ended with no national title. The Gamecocks concluded the season as the consensus #1 team and would have been the overall top seed and a favorite in the NCAA tournament. Deprived of the opportunity to earn a title on the court, the Gamecocks hung a banner for finishing the season ranked on top. That was good enough for football teams until the BCS, and not many teams had a better case than South Carolina as the nation’s best squad last season. For Georgia, the cancellation of the NCAA tournament was a reprieve. The program had never missed consecutive NCAA tournaments, and that fate was all but assured after another lackluster season. The program faced the humbling decision of accepting a WNIT bid and reconsidering their prideful policy of NCAA-or-nothing. LSU was likely headed for its first NCAA tournament since 2017, and that would have been an important turnaround for Nikki Fargas.

A 2021 season wasn’t always a given, and getting back to Greenville has been a bumpy ride for several programs. Some won’t make it at all – Vanderbilt opted out of the season in January. The standings show a range of 12 to 16 conference games played by each team with COVID and weather-related cancellations affecting nearly everyone’s schedule. That’s raised questions about everything from NCAA tournament eligibility to conference tournament seeding, and of course that’s not only an SEC problem. Even when games could be played, depleted rosters and the occasional absence of key players led to some unpredictable results that affected the standings.

What was normal and predictable was the 2021 regular season coming down to the final day. All four of the top seeds and the conference title were undecided entering Sunday. Texas A&M beat South Carolina in a battle of national top 5 programs to earn their first SEC regular season title. Tennessee easily handled Auburn to claim the #3 seed. While Georgia pulled away from pesky Florida, Kentucky lost its second game of the season to an improving Ole Miss team. The Kentucky loss knocked them out of the top four and moved Ole Miss safely out of Wednesday’s play-in game. Arkansas out-scored Alabama to settle the #6 and #7 seeds. Much of this season has been that competitive, and that could make for one of the more entertaining tournaments in years even if attendance will be limited.

Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:

Wednesday: Bye
Thursday: Bye
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs. FLA/AUB/UK: ~1:15 PM ET SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: 4:00 pm ET ESPNU
Sunday / Finals: 2:00 pm ET ESPN2
Complete Bracket Here

The Field

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

1) Texas A&M (22-1, 13-1) (LY-4th, PS-3rd): It’s not quite another example of the Ewing Theory: few expected A&M to drop that far without Chennedy Carter. An experienced and successful group of players returned, and they were selected third in the preseason poll. The 2021 Aggies have proven to be a well-rounded team with strengths at most positions, and they don’t have to rely on a prolific scorer like Carter. Gary Blair’s stamp is all over this team. They’re fundamentally sound, rebound and defend well, and attack the basket rather than stand around the three-point line. A&M has earned a reputation, like their coach, for not being flashy or exciting, but that’s only if style points matter more to you than winning. The Aggies understand what they do well, play to their strengths, and have few weaknesses to exploit. That style allowed them to remain in the background for much of the season both in the SEC and nationally, but that’s over. They enter the postseason under a glaring spotlight as SEC champs and a likely NCAA #1 seed.

A&M’s stat sheet is a study in balance and roles. Five players average between 9.2 and 13.2 points per game. Rebounds and assists are shared. The Aggies shoot almost half the three-pointers that their opponents attempt, but with a percentage over 39% they make those outside attempts count. Leading scorer Aaliyah Wilson has had a long journey coming back from a season-ending injury in 2019. She was primarily a reserve a year ago and has stepped up as a senior to be among the team’s top three in scoring, rebounding, assists, steal, and blocks. N’dea Jones averages a double-double and has pulled down 71 offensive rebounds this year. Guard Kayla Wells has only hit 13 three-pointers this year but is much more dangerous attacking the basket. Ciera Johnson is a true post who can do a lot of the dirty work inside on both ends. Jordan Nixon is the lone non-senior starter but is still an on-court leader. Destiny Pitts comes off the bench and has hit over 40% of the team’s three-pointers. Everyone brings something to the table, and the pieces fit together.

The Aggies have been in enough close games to look like a possible upset candidate in Greenville, but they’ve been dealing with that disrespect all season. They continue to find ways to win. A quarterfinal rematch against LSU, their sole loss, could be interesting, and everyone is anticipating a finals rematch with South Carolina. Will things be different now that the Aggies are the hunted? A lot can happen before we get to Sunday, but A&M has already done more than enough to earn respect as the SEC regular season champion and one of the best teams in the nation.

2) South Carolina (19-4, 14-2) (LY-1st, PS-1st): The Gamecocks became the national title favorite a year ago by blending two senior leaders with the nation’s top recruiting class. Those freshmen are now veterans and form the core of the Gamecock team. Aliyah Boston averages a double-double and is a force on both ends of the court whether shooting, rebounding, or blocking shots. She’s extended her range beyond the arc and can deftly pass out of a double-team. Guard Zia Cooke leads the team in scoring and can hit from anywhere on the court. Speedy junior Destanni Henderson brought frenzied energy to the point guard position. Dawn Staley often sticks to a rotation of seven with Laeticia Amihere and Lele Grissett providing most of the depth.

But South Carolina hasn’t been as dominant as they were a season ago. Boston can have moments of dominance but rarely carries games from end to end. They’re extremely good at getting transition baskets, but they are prone to scoring droughts if forced to play extended stretches in their halfcourt offense. They’ve scored an average of 57 points in their four losses, and even layups can be tough to come by. Tennessee was able to match South Carolina’s length and physicality, and Texas A&M was able to control tempo and halt the South Carolina transition offense. The Gamecocks have had to replace key players several times during their time atop the conference, but the departure of point guard Ty Harris has been underrated both from a production and leadership standpoint.

Still, this is a team with a championship pedigree loaded with talent. With the tournament in their home state, it’s tempting to consider the Gamecocks the favorites to win the tournament. To do so, they’ll likely have to face the two teams that handed them their SEC losses. Those losses were no flukes and exposed some very real issues with this South Carolina team.

3) Tennessee (15-6, 9-4) (LY-6th, PS-6th): The Lady Vols haven’t reached the SEC semifinals since 2016. The Lady Vols haven’t played for an SEC tournament title or been a top four seed since 2015. Kellie Harper’s second season has the program back in more familiar territory. Tennessee ended South Carolina’s 31-game SEC winning streak and handled a very good Indiana team. They took UConn down to the final minute. They did drop four SEC games, but all of those losses were to top five seeds. The Lady Vols avoided the inexplicable losses to teams closer to the bottom of the standings that marked the past couple of seasons. With a double-bye and a win over South Carolina already on the books, no one would be surprised to see Tennessee make a run into Sunday.

The Lady Vols have impressive size across the board and use that length to their advantage rebounding and on the defensive end. Senior guard Rennia Davis is a classic Lady Vol leader who can take over a game. The story of the season though might be the emergence of wing Rae Burrell as the team’s leading scorer. Burrell played well in the tournament last season and now commands as much defensive attention as Davis. But Davis and Burrell are the only two Lady Vols averaging double-figures. Tamari Key and Kasiyahna Kushkituah give Tennessee an inside presence but are stronger on the defensive end and on the glass. Jordan Horston has built on a nice freshman season but has struggled with consistency. Tennessee has to get good production from a third player as they did when Horston scored 12 in the upset of South Carolina. Four Lady Vols scored in double figures when they knocked off Arkansas earlier in the year, and they’ll need that kind of output if the teams meet again in the quarterfinals.

4) Georgia (18-5, 10-5) (LY-9th, PS-9th): As a highly-rated 2017 signing class matured into this year’s senior class, it was reasonable to expect a payoff season. But the pieces hadn’t quite come together after three years, and a repeat of last season’s ninth-place finish was the preseason prediction. Exceeding that expectation was critical for Joni Taylor as the program sought its first NCAA tournament bid since 2018. Fortunately the program did blow past those expectations, and Georgia has the second top-four finish in Taylor’s six seasons at the helm. The improvement has been marginal: Georgia’s three wins over ranked opponents came by a total of five points, and another win came in overtime at Alabama. A few points the other way would have Georgia down around that #9 seed, but you can play that game with the record of many teams. Georgia made the plays to win those close games, and they overcame decades of futility in doing so. Georgia’s win at Tennessee was their first since the 1996, and their season sweep of the Lady Vols was their first since 1985.

The improvement goes hand-in-hand with the health of guard Que Morrison. Morrison has struggled with injuries since her sophomore season, but she’s managed a full season as one of the SEC’s best defenders. With increased stamina and confidence, Morrison’s offense has come along also. Fellow seniors Gabby Connally, Jenna Staiti, and Maya Caldwell have all had important roles and contributions to Georgia’s success. Staiti is among the SEC’s leader in blocks, and any of the four seniors are capable of scoring 20+. UConn transfer Mikayla Coombs and freshman Sarah Ashlee Barker have been sparks off the bench. Depth has been a strength this year, and Taylor has reached far down the bench for big minutes in key games.

Georgia remains one of the league’s top defenses. Morrison can often lock down the opponent’s best scorer, Staiti can protect the rim, and Coombs resembles a defensive back taking errant passes back the other way. Georgia is excellent at creating turnovers and transition offense. Halfcourt offense has been more inconsistent, and the team is often its worst enemy. Even the seniors have struggled with turnovers, many of them unforced. Four or five players can do damage from outside, but there have been games in which perimeter production has been ice-cold. Georgia is at its best with Connally and at least one other player scoring from outside. With the defense extended, Staiti has often been unstoppable inside. Foul trouble has sometimes disrupted Taylor’s substitution patterns. Morrison can be aggressive with her defense, and Staiti has to be careful going for blocked shots or hedging high ball screens.

To avoid an early exit, Georgia will likely have to beat Kentucky. The Wildcats won in Athens less than a week ago. The Lady Dogs had 17 turnovers, shot 3-18 from outside, got just 5 bench points, and Staiti and Morrison both sat during the first half with foul trouble. Kentucky star Rhyne Howard went off for 27 points on 10-16 shooting. Georgia should relish the thought of a rematch, but they’ll need a much better effort on both ends of the court. The Lady Dogs are looking for their first semifinal appearance since 2018, and a high NCAA tournament seed might depend on it.

5) Kentucky (16-7, 9-6) (LY-3rd, PS-2nd): The Wildcats were rocked by the sudden retirement of successful coach Matthew Mitchell in November. Assistant Kyra Elzy, since promoted to head coach, has done a fine job holding things together and maintaining Kentucky’s usual position among the top half of the SEC. Her job is made easier by the presence of player-of-the-year candidate Rhyne Howard. Howard has been the defensive focus of opponents for three seasons, but it hasn’t mattered. She remains the league’s best and most consistent scorer and has frequently put the team on her back. But the attention paid to Howard has opened things up for teammates. Explosive 5’5″ point guard Chasity Patterson averages around 13 PPG, and forward Dre’una Edwards cleans up inside. Elzy’s team continues to play the tight press defense that became Mitchell’s trademark, and that approach has led to wins over Indiana, Arkansas, Georgia, and Tennessee. A season sweep by Ole Miss showed that the Cats need production from more than just Howard and Patterson, and those contributions from the rest of the roster will determine how far Kentucky can advance.

6) Arkansas (19-7, 9-6) (LY-5th, PS-4th): After a strong 2020 season and deep run in the 2019 SEC tournament, Arkansas won’t catch anyone sleeping anymore. That might be to their detriment. The fearless Hogs scheduled – and won! – high-profile nonconference games against Baylor and UConn, but SEC teams have been more prepared for the up-tempo offensive onslaught of the Razorbacks that we’ve seen for the past three seasons. Seven seniors enter their final postseason leading a team confident that it can out-score anyone. Chelsea Dungee leads the team in scoring at 22.2 PPG, but this is a multi-pronged attack. Dungee, Amber Ramirez, Destiny Slocum, and Makayla Daniels have each attempted at least 113 three-pointers, and all four hit at least 37% of those attempts. Interior play has been a tag-team of Taylah Thomas and Erynn Barnum, but there’s no mistake that the offense flows through its guards. Arkansas took it on the chin early in the SEC season with a 2-5 start, but they enter the SEC tournament winners of 7 of their last 8 with the sole loss a 2-point setback at Texas A&M. They’ve been mortal away from home with a 7-6 record outside of the state. Teams that have been able to beat Arkansas have found a way to slow down an offense that prefers to be scoring around 90 points per game. A possible quarterfinal showdown with Tennessee could be one of Friday’s most anticipated games.

7) Alabama (15-8, 8-8) (LY-8th, PS-8th): A 7th-place finish on the heels of an 8th-place finish a year ago establishes Alabama firmly in the middle of the pack. That’s a step up from a couple of years ago, and this year it should be enough to get the program back into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999. They’re lead by a trio of accomplished seniors. Jasmine Walker, Jordan Lewis, and Ariyah Copeland account for 68% of the team’s scoring. A sweep of Mississippi State and a win over LSU highlight their accomplishments, but they’ve dropped two in a row to end the regular season. Copeland and Walker are formidable inside players capable of scoring and rebounding, but they need more consistent outside play and ballhandling to advance. Missouri’s new-found outside shooting success could tax Alabama’s ability to keep up.

8) LSU (8-12, 6-8) (LY-7th, PS-7th): LSU seemed to be a lock for the lost NCAA tournament of 2020, but they’re likely back on the outside this year. That’s disappointing for a team, like Georgia, that was counting on a strong senior class to pay off. Khayla Pointer leads the team with over 16 PPG. Faustine Aifuwa and Awa Trasi are physical post players, and Jailin Cherry has become a dangerous scorer later in the season. The Tigers had a very poor nonconference showing as they were slow to find an identity. Things improved as soon as the Tigers started SEC play, but they have been on the wrong end of some very close games. The month of January shows how tight things have been for LSU: a 5-3 record with two overtime games and the rest decided by no more than 8 points. LSU has wins over Texas A&M and Georgia and lost to Tennessee and South Carolina by a combined 5 points. A bad loss to Florida might have put the Tigers in a position to have to win the tournament or at least reach the finals in order to have a postseason. This is a team that has the experience, poise, and talent to do that, but it’s a very tall order.

9) Mississippi State (10-8, 5-7) (LY-2nd, PS-5th): The Bulldogs had a rougher transition with their new coach than Kentucky. Vic Schaefer departed for Texas, and Nikki McCray-Penson inherited a team with some talent but which was also on the backside of the program’s glory years. Few programs (other than Vanderbilt of course) were disrupted as much as MSU this year. The Bulldogs only played 18 games overall and just 12 SEC games. The dearth of games left them few opportunities to notch quality wins. They defeated Georgia, LSU, and…not many other teams of note. MSU is just 2-3 since the beginning of February, but the latest bracket projections still have them in the field. Rickea Jackson and Jessika Carter return to provide an impressive 1-2 punch, but the supporting cast hasn’t been as strong as it’s been in recent seasons. The Bulldogs can be dangerous if they get outside production from Aliyah Matharu or Myah Taylor.

10) Missouri (9-10, 5-9) (LY-11th, PS-10th): During their peak years in the mid-2010s, Missouri lapped the field in the number of three-pointers attempted. That identity changed last year as the program began to build around forward Aijha Blackwell. Blackwell remains a force, but the Tigers began to reestablish their dominance from outside towards the end of this year. They’ve attempted at least 20 three-pointers in four of their last five games and at least 28 three-pointers in each of their final three games. Five Tigers have attempted at least 50 three-pointers this year, and all five are hitting at least 30% from outside. Blackwell’s sophomore classmate Hayley Frank leads the charge shooting almost 45% on 78 three-point attempts. You still need a post presence, and LaDazhia Wilson has thrived as defenses are forced to extend beyond the arc. Mizzou is a dangerous offensive team that, like Arkansas, can simply shoot an opponent out of the building as they did at Mississippi State in the regular season finale. They’re not quite at Arkansas’s level though, and more athletic teams have found ways to outscore them.

11) Ole Miss (10-10, 4-10) (LY-14th, PS-11th): It might seem odd to highlight a four-win team as one of the SEC’s most improved, but Yolett McPhee-McCuin’s squad has taken a step forward. Ole Miss was winless in the SEC a year ago but had several close losses. Coach Yo hit the recruiting trail, enticed a McDonald’s All-American to come to Oxford, and Ole Miss now packs a punch. They got a breakthrough win against Kentucky and beat a good Alabama team on the road, and they’ve been competitive in many more games than not. They proved the win over Kentucky was no fluke by beating the Wildcats again on the last day of the season to avoid the play-in game. Shakira Austin has emerged as a tough inside presence who has scored 20+ points against some of the SEC’s best defenses. Georgia transfer Donnetta Johnson has become the team’s second-leading scorer. Freshman Madison Scott is averaging over 10 PPG and is a legitimate freshman of the year candidate. There are still holes, and they’re still gaining experience as one of the nation’s youngest teams. You get a sense though that things are headed in the right direction, and it should be fun watching this team grow over the next few seasons.

12) Florida (10-12, 3-11) (LY-10th, PS-12th): Florida took a step back this year but were still competitive in most SEC games thanks to a productive offense. A solid win at LSU looked to be a breakthrough, but a day later they announced the loss of their leading scorer. Lavender Briggs built on an impressive freshman campaign and was challenging for the conference scoring title before a nagging injury ended her season. To their credit, Florida responded with tough games against Kentucky and Alabama and led Georgia at halftime, but there wasn’t enough in the tank to come away with wins. Guard Kiki Smith has stepped up to lead the offensive attack and isn’t far off Briggs’ average, and the rest of the Nina Rickards and Danielle Rainey are capable of big nights.

13) Auburn (5-18, 0-15) (LY-13th, PS-14th): The Tigers languish near the bottom of the standings for the second year in a row, and that can’t be good news for coach Terri Williams-Flournoy. This once-proud program went winless in conference play, but they feature one of the SEC’s best players. Senior Unique Thompson easily averages a double-double and is among the nation’s best rebounders. She is the kind of consistent high-producer that should have a long pro career. Unfortunately the surrounding cast hasn’t been up to par. Baylor transfer Honesty Scott-Grayson has been a nice addition and quickly became the team’s second-leading scorer. After that duo production has been spotty. Auburn’s trapping defense causes opponents to turn it over around 18 times per game, but Auburn has struggled to turn those turnovers into points. Thompson deserves a moment of glory as her Auburn career comes to an end. Can it come in the tournament?

14) Vanderbilt (4-4, 0-3) (LY-12th, PS-13th): We hardly knew them. Vandy’s first three games were canceled, and two more around Christmas were canceled. The Commodores managed five nonconference games and three SEC games before deciding to opt out of the rest of the season. COVID issues made it impossible to get much of a read on this team, but they saved their best for last: what was left of their roster nearly upset Kentucky. Vanderbilt made the smallest bit of progress last year with four SEC wins, but not much was expected of them this year. This would have been Stephanie White’s fifth season at the helm with the program still firmly in the SEC basement.


Post Georgia football’s Long Span

Monday February 15, 2021

Every so often we see a story that reminds us how events that seem well in the distant past are connected by only a lifetime or two. John Tyler, born in 1790 and president from 1841 to 1845 still has a living grandchild. The last person collecting a Civil War pension from the United States government passed away only last year.

Georgia football might have its own “Great Span” frame of reference: entering Kirby Smart’s sixth season, there are still players on the roster who were recruited by and even committed to Mark Richt. The program confirmed on Wednesday that receiver Demetris Robertson and defensive lineman Julian Rochester will return for a sixth season of eligibility.

Due to the pandemic, the NCAA offered seniors a one-time waiver that allows them to essentially replay their senior season. Four core senior members of the UGA softball team, which begins its 2021 season this weekend, elected to return and will provide a big lift to that team. Georgia football also had several seniors who hadn’t announced their future plans and were candidates to return. Robertson and Rochester are the two from that group who will remain with the program for an additional season.

Robertson was rated as the nation’s #8 prospect by Rivals for the 2016 class. The Savannah native was recruited by both Richt and Kirby Smart and most every other program. He signed with Cal in February 2016. Robertson played one full season at Cal, but he received a medical redshirt in 2017 after an injury early in the season. He announced his decision to transfer home to Georgia before the 2018 season and was immediately eligible.

Rochester’s story goes back even further. The McEachern standout committed to Georgia on May 29, 2015, making him the last remaining player on the roster who committed to Mark Richt. The assistant coaches credited with his recruitment were Kevin Sherrer and Tracy Rocker. Kirby Smart honored Rochester’s offer, and Rochester signed as part of Smart’s first class in 2016. He will enter his sixth season at 24 years of age. Rochester earned playing time early at Georgia, but injuries have slowed his rise up the depth chart. A healthy Rochester could provide some quality depth along the interior of Georgia’s defensive line.


Post 2021 SEC schedule released – hopefully for the last time

Friday January 29, 2021

With much fanfare, the SEC released its 2021 football schedule on Wednesday. We already knew the opponents, and just the dates were left to be filled in. Unfortunately the SEC is reverting to the eight-game conference slate, so this is a return to a fairly typical schedule and the previous SEC West rotation. After the scheduling chaos of last season, it has to be said that we’re still not out of the pandemic woods. We hope things are to a point where all games get played as scheduled, but a lot has to happen over the next six months. We can feel pretty certain about the SEC’s readiness, but playing a complete schedule depends on a stable enough situation that teams across the country, including FCS schools like Charleston Southern, can field and travel full squads. So here’s the schedule – as it is now:

Sept. 4: Clemson (Charlotte)
Sept. 11: vs. UAB
Sept. 18: vs. South Carolina
Sept. 25: at Vanderbilt
Oct. 2: vs. Arkansas
Oct. 9: at Auburn
Oct. 16: vs. Kentucky
Oct. 23: BYE
Oct. 30: Florida (Jacksonville)
Nov. 6: vs. Missouri
Nov. 13: at Tennessee
Nov. 20: vs. Charleston Southern
Nov. 27: at Georgia Tech

The opener against Clemson will be one of the bigger nonconference games in the nation in 2021. There will be no shortage of hype or analysis of that game, and it will set the tone for both programs. A win by either team arguably sets them up as a playoff favorite, and a loss means they’ll have to run the table. There will be plenty more to say over the next seven months.

What stands out about the rest of the schedule is how many new coaches Georgia will face. Six of Georgia’s eight SEC opponents will have first- or second-year head coaches. All three of Georgia’s SEC road games will be against first-year coaches. That doesn’t mean the games are gimmes – they’re still SEC road games, and while these coaches might be new at their current gig they’re not inexperienced nor new to big-time football.

It’s also glaring that the best games on the schedule are away from Athens. There are two neutral site games, and Auburn, Tennessee, and Tech are all on the road. It says a lot about the quality of the home schedule when the highlights are the return of Sam Pittman and Shane Beamer, the whole Muschamp storyline in week 3, and a possible trap game against a decent Missouri team. I’m doubtful that this year turns into 2017 when a lightweight home schedule became a little interesting. We’re in that home scheduling lull between Notre Dame in 2019 and some fun home-and-homes later this decade.

After Clemson, the biggest tests left on the schedule are anyone’s guess. At this point it looks as if Georgia will be favored in every game after the opener, but there’s often a team or two that surprises and becomes a much more difficult challenge than we expected. It’s tough to imagine South Carolina or Vanderbilt getting their acts together that early in the season. Tennessee might have some things figured out by November, but there’s so much to rebuild there. It’s possible that Bo Nix thrives under new management, and a trip to Auburn is rarely routine. Missouri was respectable with a first-year coach and QB, and they will be a popular pick to finish in the top half of the SEC East. Georgia won’t have much time to dwell on whatever happens in Jacksonville. Of course we underestimate Florida at our peril. They probably won’t be the team they were last season, but you can’t imagine Georgia being an SEC or national contender without winning that game.


Post Nature, nurture, and elite production

Friday January 15, 2021

As I watched Alabama dominate the 2020 college football season, what stuck with me was how consistently they got peak performance from their best players. What’s relevant to Georgia isn’t that Alabama had good players. Georgia does as well. It’s how Alabama was able to get Heisman-quality performance out of those players. Waddle, Smith, Harris, and Jones were all 4* and 5* Rivals prospects, but only Harris was a top 10 prospect. We shouldn’t be surprised that a highly-rated prospect became a future top draft pick, but how were so many able to do it at one place? Is there anything we can take from that to see if Georgia can do something similar with their own group of highly-rated skill players?

We know that the Georgia offense will be loaded with really good players. J.T. Daniels made an obvious impact and raised Georgia’s offensive SP+ ranking from around 40 to a final ranking of #21 in the span of four games. The tailback room will be five-deep with unique skill sets that will allow Georgia to do everything from pound between the tackles to exploit mismatches with receivers coming out of the backfield. Capable receivers emerged to make defenses pay for keying on George Pickens, and all of them will return plus Dominick Blaylock. The entire offensive line that started the Peach Bowl is back, and there is enough promising talent in the pipeline that any of those starters could be pushed.

All of that returning talent with a full (and hopefully somewhat-normal) offseason absorbing Todd Monken’s system should have us excited. But is this talent enough for UGA to be the next team whose offense becomes the talk of college football en route to the playoffs? We know that success is the combination of talent, player development, and scheme. Georgia addressed its deficient scheme after the 2019 season, and we saw some progress during the 2020 season even without the benefit of a typical offseason installation. It’s reasonable to expect continued progress with so many key pieces slated to return in 2021. Talent also deserves some scrutiny though.

When we look at the LSU and Alabama success stories, we see the union of modern pass-favoring schemes and great and even elite talent. We’ve seen the last two titles won by outrageously productive offenses that featured first-round talent at just about every position. The distinction between “great”, “elite”, and “really good” might seem like meaningless mush, but there is a difference. Does Georgia’s talent really stack up with those LSU and Alabama teams? Not many will match Alabama. There were three Heisman contenders with another injured midseason. Those skill players were aided by the Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line. LSU had a similar spread of talent. They had the Heisman winner at QB, a first-round pick at tailback and WR and another receiver who will be a 2021 first rounder. Three offensive linemen were drafted in the first four rounds with another two signing free agent deals.

None of Georgia returning offensive players for 2021 were named to the 2020 All-SEC teams. That doesn’t mean they stink; we know better than that. It also doesn’t mean they can’t make the leap during the offseason. You could make the case that J.T. Daniels is held in higher regard now than Joe Burrow was before his final season. You can argue that postseason honors are partially the product of system, team success, or reputation, but that’s a tougher argument with draft picks. And as much as we fans appreciate the notion of unfinished business for the returning players, we recognize that the expectation of a first or second round pick would have ended the business at Georgia for just about any player.

Being shut out of the All-SEC teams isn’t a sign of overrated talent or poor prospects for 2021. Georgia was also without a player on the 2016 postseason All-SEC teams. The following season – the second year in a new offensive system – produced multiple draft picks at tailback, receiver, and offensive line and a top 5 offense despite a true freshman at quarterback.

The expectations for the offense rise from a more general impatience: Georgia has recruited as well as just about anyone over the past four years, and we’re anxious to see the payoff. The talent level is enough to overwhelm most opponents and just about ensure a top 10 finish – something we shouldn’t take for granted. While we learned this season to appreciate the hard work that goes into even winning the division, the outlook for the program is still focused on SEC titles, playoff appearances, and the national title. If Georgia’s talent is what we claim it is, those objectives should be within reach.


Post That’s a wrap

Wednesday December 16, 2020

Georgia’s 2020 regular season is over. Vanderbilt announced on Monday that they’d be unable to field a team on Saturday, and Georgia’s attempts to find a replacement game came up empty.

“While we conducted our due diligence in finding a replacement game, we were unable to make it happen,” said UGA J. Reid Parker Director of Athletics Greg McGarity. “We now focus on our upcoming Bowl game. We are also working on alternative ways to honor our senior class, who deserve the opportunity to be celebrated as one of the most prolific classes in University of Georgia history.”

It’s frustrating – Georgia is one of a handful of SEC schools who won’t complete their 10-game schedule, and at no time did the program have to shut down or pull itself out of a game. But it’s 2020, and we’ve been aware from the start that nothing was guaranteed and that every game played should be cherished. It’s especially tough for Georgia as a team that was just hitting a good stride. Without a conference title game to play, the Vanderbilt game would have been one more showcase for a revitalized offense. Other teams aren’t in such a good position right now, and more than a few are just ready to call it quits on this difficult year. It’s tough to blame them.

Of course the biggest consequence of this cancellation is that Georgia won’t be able to honor its seniors in a final home game. Bulldog fans will have only seen three home games in 2020 and just one since early October. McGarity promises to “work on alternative ways to honor our senior class,” but it’s going to be difficult to gather them all back inside Sanford Stadium once NFL draft preparations begin. Perhaps something can be worked out at the bowl, especially if Georgia plays in Atlanta. (It being 2020 and all, I guess we should add a qualifier for the bowl game being played too.)

This development should come as a warning for Georgia’s winter sports that are underway or preparing to play. It’s not a given that we’ll see a complete basketball or gymnastics season. Several basketball programs have already canceled games or eliminated the rest of their nonconference slates altogether. Those programs should make plans to honor seniors and do other traditional end-of-year activities early in the season.


Post Georgia 49 – Missouri 14: Balance and force

Tuesday December 15, 2020

I’m sure it’s happened before, but it’s been a while since we’ve seen a game in which the Georgia offense produced:

  • A 300-yard passer
  • A 100-yard receiver
  • Two 100-yard tailbacks
  • Four different tailbacks with touchdowns

To be fair, J.T. Daniels didn’t exactly get to 300 yards – 299 will have to do. Since J.T. Daniels took over at quarterback, we’ve seen a game in which the passing attack thrived while the rushing output didn’t break double-digits. We’ve seen the running game come to life at the expense of a less-prolific passing game. Observers maybe still not quite sure of the offense’s transformation wanted to see it all put together. This game was what they were waiting to see. Georgia’s full arsenal of passing and rushing weapons was on display, and a playcaller that knew how to make the most of those weapons unleashed them. Mississippi State and South Carolina were depleted defenses, and it could be argued that Georgia took advantage of some exceptional absences. Missouri was a more respectable defense with a top 40 SP+ ranking and a rush defense comparable to a team like Auburn.

I mentioned before the season that one of the biggest challenges in 2020 was “getting their ass ready to play,” to use Kirby Smart’s warning before the 2019 South Carolina loss. With an early road kickoff, bad weather, and the season’s goals out of reach, many previews of the game questioned Georgia’s mindset against a motivated Missouri team on a bit of a roll. That doubt seemed to be put to rest early as Georgia jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead. But Missouri tested Georgia’s composure with a scoring drive of their own and then capitalized on a rare Georgia special teams miscue.

Georgia’s quick start was halted as Missouri’s defense turned up the pressure in the second quarter. This pressure suffocated the Georgia running game and began to affect Daniels. Following Missouri’s first touchdown, Daniels went on a 3-for-10 stretch and was sacked twice (and nearly a third time). The pivotal play came on a 3rd and 10 with just over a minute left in the half. Rather than continue with a stationary pocket, Daniels was rolled out to the right, giving him time he hadn’t had in a while. He found Kearis Jackson along the sideline for a first down, and that completion was the first of four straight to end the half which allowed the Dawgs to retake the lead going into the half.

That drive to end the half reignited the Georgia offense, and it began a 17-minute stretch of game during which Georgia scored a total of 35 unanswered points on five consecutive drives. Better protection and offensive line play in the third quarter led to explosive running and passing plays. On those five drives alone, Georgia had four runs of 10+ yards and five completions longer than 20 yards, and the first three touchdowns came on plays of 36, 31, and 43 yards. By the start of the 4th quarter the game was in hand, and there was ample time to empty the bench.

The offense’s explosive game shouldn’t overshadow the most complete game by the Georgia defense since the Auburn game. Missouri came into the game on a hot streak with 91 points over their past two games. The Tigers had settled on young but effective quarterback and had found success with an effective, if not explosive, short passing game. The backfield featured Larry Rountree, one of the most prolific and versatile backs in program history. Rountree had rushed for 345 yards in the past two games. Georgia has faced better offenses this year, but maybe only Alabama has done a better job of testing defenses with both the run and the pass.

Unlike Georgia, Missouri was unable to use their balance to strain the defense. Thanks in part to the return of Jordan Davis, Georgia was able to limit Rountree to an inconsequential 16 yards on 14 carries. That success against the run didn’t open up many receivers for Connor Bazelak. Without a credible downfield threat, Bazelak only managed 5 yards per attempt. Mizzou had no runs longer than 9 yards and only three completions longer than 20 yards including the receiver pass. Without many explosive plays, the Tigers weren’t able to sustain drives and generate many scoring chances, and they had just one drive longer than 30 yards. While the Georgia offense was stretching its legs, Missouri managed just 69 yards of second half offense.

It wasn’t a great day for special teams – there was a punt blocked, a punt muffed, and a missed field goal. Those were some of the bigger blemishes on a game that was nearly complete in other phases. The team emphatically answered any questions and doubts about its focus, desire, and preparation, and it heads back home on as big of a late-season roll as we’ve seen since 2012 or even 2007. It’s unfortunate that it took most of the season before the offense began to realize the payoffs from the offseason moves and additions, but it’s a much better place to be in than last season when the need to start over again was sadly obvious. Georgia has a system that works, the players to make it work, and the job of the offseason is making sure those pieces stay in place.

  • One of the highlights of the second half was the reception Daijun Edwards received from his fellow backs after scoring to start the fourth quarter. There might not be a surefire first round talent among the group, but all five (including Milton) bring something to the table.
  • Perhaps the most impressive thing we saw from the tailbacks across the board was patience. McIntosh and White had big runs down the left side as they allowed the blocking to arrange itself and then took off.
  • The passes to Washington got people talking about the tight ends, but they also had some impressive blocking. Watch the touchdown runs by White and Cook, and you’ll see multiple tight ends clearing the way.
  • One of the next steps for the offense is efficiency. It’s great that Daniels has been effective on third down, and he was again in this game, but it’s playing with fire to be in so many 3rd-and-long situations.
  • Pickens has had a good run with 16 receptions, 238 yards, and 3 TD since Daniels took over. He’s getting more one-on-one matchups as receivers like Jackson and Burton emerge. When Pickens does draw double coverage, you end up with something like a wide-open middle of the field for Cook. Pick your poison.
  • Yes, everyone knows you can take a shot downfield when you have a free play from a pending offsides penalty. It’s another thing to execute it. No one gave up on the play, Pickens took off, and Daniels put the ball where his star receiver could do his thing.
  • I’ll talk about it every time it happens – it doesn’t get much better than bookending halftime with scores. Georgia turned a tie game into a 28-14 lead before Missouri had a meaningful possession. Good clock management at the end of the first half helped make that possible.
  • Lewis Cine was victimized on Missouri’s biggest pass play of the game, but his value as a tackler has only grown this season. Offseason improvement in pass defense should turn him into a very good safety. Latavious Brini saw far more time than usual after Christopher Smith was dinged up. Missouri couldn’t take advantage of Brini, and the junior actually had a good game and stepped up nicely. Brini had one impressive play in particular where he sprinted in from a deep safety position to stop a jet sweep before it turned upfield. His 1.5 tackles for loss were second on the team behind only Malik Herring.
  • The return of Jordan Davis was a boon for other defenders like Herring. Georgia had only a single sack due to Missouri’s quick release passes, but they ate up the running game and made Bazelak uncomfortable. Over 15% of Georgia’s tackles resulted in a loss.