Georgia has a chance to turn the tide on Gators

Georgia has a chance to turn the tide on Gators

It can all change this weekend.

Georgia’s Florida malaise seemed doomed when Aaron Murray arrived, but even a three-game winning streak couldn’t stop it, as Florida has dominated the last three meetings.

This year, however, feels different. It just… does. Georgia seems to be on the ascendency at a level not seen since Mark Richt’s second season.

Florida seems to be in quicksand, led by a coach seemingly both underappreciated and on the hot seat, simultaneously.

Georgia enters the game ranked third in the nation, having dismantled every opponent except No. 10 Notre Dame, which it beat by a point on the road.

Florida, meanwhile, is coming off of back-to-back home defeats and has yet another stagnant offense. While poor offensive play was mitigated by a dominant defense in Jim McElwain’s first two years, a young defense has slid considerably from the last two seasons.

The Gators have finally cycled out of Will Muschamp’s loaded defensive roster and it shows. Florida is 50th in yards per play allowed in 2017 after finishing 7th, 8th, and 5th the last three seasons.

On offense, the Gators are 68th in the nation in yards per play, which is way up from a Mac’s first two seasons (105th and 102nd, respectively). So you’d think it would be better, but Florida is still awful in scoring offense, ranking 96th after finishing in the 100s two years running.

This weekend feels like two teams heading in opposite directions, with Georgia having a booster on its back. Vegas agrees, too, yet many Georgia fans assume the worst will happen in Jacksonville.

Why? Well, for starters, Florida has owned this rivalry of late, having won 27 times since 1990.

To make matters worse, in one game Georgia was a double-digit favorite and saw a Publix bag boy beat them on a fake punt, en route to another blowout loss.

That kind of dominance makes this comment from Florida WR Josh Hammond understandable, even if it was ill advised.

Georgia’s players and coaches think they’ve grown by leaps and bounds compared to this time last year. If it wants to prove that—perhaps more to itself than anyone—the best way is to exorcise its Gator demons.

It can all change this weekend. It’s up to Georgia, but the chance is there.

Georgia simply has to take it.


For Georgia, failing to win the SEC East has become inexcusable

For Georgia, failing to win the SEC East has become inexcusable

I didn’t think the SEC would be back to 2010 levels, but I did think it would be better than a year ago (and two years ago) and on its way back.

I was wrong.

The league is just as bad (if not worse) than it was a year ago. Through four games the SEC East is Georgia followed by six dumpster fires of varying intensity. The SEC West is Alabama and then a Grand Canyon-size gap before you reach Auburn (or is it Mississippi State?).

While the West is down for sure, the East is almost comically bad.

Florida, try as it might, simply can’t lose to fellow SEC East teams right now, even if it’s 94th on defense and 78th on offense.

Tennessee was embarrassed for 3.5 quarters against Georgia Tech before pulling a win out of its ass, then proceeded to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory against the Gators. The Vols followed that up with needing to stop Umass (yes, 0-4 Umass) five times to salvage a 17-13 win.

Missouri is hilariously bad. Just awful. It opened the year letting an FCS team hang 40+ on them before getting blasted at home by Purdue and Auburn by a combined score of 86-17.

Kentucky blew a 13-point fourth quarter lead on two plays where it literally did not cover a wide receiver. I’m not joking. It happened twice in the same quarter. But don’t worry Big Blue Nation. Mark Stoops is on the mother.

South Carolina looked to be perhaps a dark horse up until Deebo Samuel went down for the year in a loss to Kentucky. They followed up that stinker with needing a last-second FG to beat Louisiana Tech at home.

Then we have Vanderbilt, bless their hearts, who felt like a real team after boring Kansas State to death 14-7. That led to some “Can Vandy win the SEC East” talk leading up the CBS game of the week against Alabama.

Let’s check out that box score.

Screen Shot 2017-09-27 at 1.16.56 PM.png

That leaves Georgia, a team ripe with talent and loaded with history of underachievement. The Bulldogs clearly look like the cream of the rotten crop in the East, having beaten a solid Notre Dame team on the road while housing three opponents at home, including then-17th ranked Mississippi State last week.

As you look around the East it’s impossible to logically pick any team other than Georgia to win it, though with this being Georgia sometimes logic goes by the wayside.

Georgia has faced three FBS teams thus far (Appalachian State, Notre Dame, and Mississippi State). Those teams average 28th in yards per play defensively. The remaining eight teams average 61st in yards per play, with Auburn (4th) being the only team in the top 30.

Georgia’s defense has been among the best in the country and it still gets Florida, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Auburn’s offenses. You have to like Georgia’s odds of staying in the top 10 on defense.

Losing to Auburn on the road is certainly possible (probable, even) but every other game is so stacked in Georgia’s favor that anything less than 7-1 in conference play will be inexcusable.

Last year Butch Jones and Tennessee had a window to win the East and derped around. Now Jones is on the hot seat and some have him coaching for his job.

The window could not be more open for Georgia and Kirby Smart than it is right now. Failing to take advantage of a terrible division would be a major blotch on Smart’s short tenure in Athens.

Nick Fitzgerald away from StarkVegas is a much different QB

Nick Fitzgerald away from StarkVegas is a much different QB

Georgia gets its second consecutive Bulldogs squad in Athens this week, after brushing aside FCS Samford Bulldogs in week-2.

The Mississippi State Bulldogs come in hot, having beaten LSU into the ground at home. Some think the western Bulldogs have the second best coach in the SEC in Dan Mullen, and when you think about what Mississippi State has to work with it’s hard to argue against that claim.

Mississippi State took LSU behind the woodshed, exposing the Tigers for being of the papier-mâché variety. Whether or not the result was due to LSU incompetence, Mississippi State brilliance, or a mix of the two we don’t yet know, but we do know Mullen has a perfect quarterback for his system and his team is capable of shutting down a supposed conference anchor.

So what can Georgia do to ensure it isn’t in LSUs shoes come Saturday night? For starters, playing at home is huge. It’s a double whammy for Georgia as this allows true freshman QB Jake Fromm to have some built-in support, plus it’s away from Starkville, where Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald plays demonstrably better.

Just how much better is Fitzgerald at home? Check out his 2016 home/road splits.

Mississippi State played Louisiana Tech on the road this year and Fitzgerald was very efficient (12/18, 124 yards 3 TDs, 1 INT), but playing at La Tech against La Tech athletes isn’t the same as coming to Athens, obviously. Last year gives us a decent sample size of road and home games, however, and here are the home-away splits. I’ve emphasized some stats (bold) that jump out to me from a home/away divide.

27.5 passing attempts per game
8.0 YPA

13:6 TD:INT ratio
144.37 QB rating
218 YPG passing
15.3 Rushing APG
7.6 YPC
116 YPG

28 passing attempts per game
5.7 YPA

8:4 TD:INT ration
107.47 QB rating
158 YPG passing
14.71 rushing APG
6.56 YPC
96.57 YPG

What this tells me is Fitzgerald the passer and Fitzgerald the runner travel at a different level. While his rushing numbers are down on the road, it’s not a big drop. His passing numbers away from home, however, are drastically different.

So while Fitzgerald did look good in his one road start in 2017, I’m going to gamble that UGAs defense will present a few more challenges than La Tech’s could, and the 2016 version of Fitzgerald shows itself.

As for when UGA has the ball, like in every regular season game the team plays this year, if the offensive line plays well Georgia will probably win it. The problem is the offensive line hasn’t been consistent in several years.

Former Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham now holds that title in Starkville, and I suspect he’ll do something similar to what he did against LSU and add guys in run support and risk his corners on an island.

If I were him I’d at least test UGA’s OL and see if his 6-7 can hold up against UGAs 5-6 before committing the safeties, but I could see him thinking the UGA WRs and Fromm might not be up to the aerial task.

The keys for Georgia’s defense are simple. If Fitzgerald gets going on the ground it’s going to be tough. Stop his running game and you stop Mississippi State’s offense.

It’s trickier when Georgia has the ball, however. Fromm has played well for a true freshman, but that qualifier applies. If you were judging Fromm based on what it takes to win the SEC East or contend for an SEC title, Georgia has to get better at QB.

Wide receivers Riley Ridley, Terry Godwin, and Mecole Hardman are going to be hugely important in this game. If they can get separation and force Mississippi State to back off of the line of scrimmage it changes Grantham’s mentality.

I tend to think Fromm will play better against Mississippi State than did LSU QB Danny Etling. This will allow UGA a bit more breathing room as Mississippi State won’t be able to stack the box.

I also think this game, much like the Mississippi State-LSU game, will drastically favor whomever gets a lead. If either team is up more than one score in the second half it will undercut what the other wants to do in a major way. Just as LSU wasn’t build to come from behind, neither is Georgia or Mississippi State.

I think Georgia will dial up some early-down passing plays to loosen up the Mississippi State defense and open up some running lanes for Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, and D’Andre Swift.

This doesn’t mean I expect UGA to pile up the points. I most certainly do not. I do think 27 is attainable, however, and I don’t think Mississippi State scores more than that on Georgia in Athens.

Georgia 27

Mississippi State 24

Georgia is 2-0, but offensive questions linger

Georgia is 2-0, but offensive questions linger

Winning cures everything, or in Georgia’s case, winning overshadows everything as what ails Georgia’s offense is most certainly still rampant.

After leaning on (an admittedly nasty) defense to beat Notre Dame last week, Georgia’s offensive output (or lack thereof) has been overshadowed through two games what with the defense looking so good. For those so inclined, however, taking a peek at the offense shows it’s regressed from a year ago.

Before we delve into the numbers, let’s toss out that yes, Appalachian State and Notre Dame are two solid teams that, on average, are probably better on defense than the average team Georgia faced a year ago. This year’s squad could take advantage of this week’s body bag game and pad some stats, something Georgia failed to do last year against any team it faced, thus inflating the current loathsome numbers.

Also, losing Jacob Eason eight plays into the season has to be taken into account. For all of the Jake Fromm hype leading into the season, through two games he looks very much like the true freshman he is. Just as Eason did a year ago.

Having said that, Georgia’s offensive numbers are dumpster fire-level bad.

  • Yards per play: 98th (2016: 86th)
  • Yards per attempt (Passing): 107th (2016: 101st)
  • Yards per attempt (Rushing): 54th (2016: 54th)
  • Scoring offense: 89th (2016: 102nd)
  • Third Down %: 114th (2016: 54th)

Jake Fromm hasn’t played poorly, either. He’s simply played like a true freshman who’s been managed into situations that limit the possibility of danger.

Fromm’s QB rating isn’t good (123.76, good for 81st in the nation) but it is slightly better than Eason’s from a year ago (120.26, good for 90th). Fromm’s QB rating through two games is much lower than Eason’s was at this time a year ago, though Fromm was asked to do more as well, so I’m not sure it means much.

In a way this post could be one week early. Georgia could take Samford behind the woodshed in Athens and these numbers could spike, but truth be told, I don’t expect that to happen. At least, I don’t expect the offense to light it up. I do think Georgia cruises, but that has more to do with its elite defense.

The real question comes after Samford. Can offensive coordinator Jim Chaney get this team to solid on offense? Expecting it to reach highs beyond simply “solid” seems asking too much.

The offensive line still lacks any consistent push, and for all of the talk about Sam Pittman being an elite offensive line coach, we’ve yet to see that in action. I know the previous regime left the current one in a bind on the OL (that’s 100% true and inarguable). But elite coaches should find a way of getting a unit to perform at least admirably, and I’m not sure that’s been the case as of yet.

Then we have the Chaney question. Last year I gave him (and by extension Kirby Smart) a total pass. First year head coaches with a suspect offensive line and a raw true freshman QB don’t tend to succeed in major college football. This year a few of those factors are gone, though that damn true freshman QB problem is alive and well after Eason’s injury.

But what has me most concerned isn’t Chaney’s play calling, though I’m sure there are far better game day coaches than Chaney. What really worries me is the lack of any real identity. Georgia seems to have two QBs who prefer to line up and spread it around, but it has a head coach that wants to play a more buttoned up, traditional offense.

Chaney seems to be an offensive coordinator that can’t decide what he wants as he bounces from spread to ground-and-pound seemingly on a whim. The problem is when you can’t run the ball in the I-formation a lot of what comes off of that success is limited or non-existent entirely, yet it seems like that’s what the head coach wants out of his offense.

Just like last year it seems as though there’s a disconnect from what Smart wants Chaney to do with what Chaney wants to do with what the offensive capabilities allow to be done. And that disconnect leads Georgia to the bottom of the nation in offensive output once again.

Unless the offensive line “clicks” and starts blowing defenses off of the ball—I wouldn’t hold your breath—I suspect this is sort of how it’s going to be all year, which I suspect will lead to an offensive coordinator search come December or January.

Maybe I’ll look back on this and laugh it off after Georgia starts humming offensively, but I don’t even know what humming would look like in Athens. What does Smart want from his offense? Does Chaney want the same thing? I honestly don’t know, and that seems like more than a problem of my own.


For Kirby Smart and Georgia it’s time to put up or shut up

For Kirby Smart and Georgia it’s time to put up or shut up

It’s not that I was happy to see Mark Richt go, but I did understand it. I think Greg McGarity, Georgia’s bless-his-heart AD, had an interesting way of going about it, but I do think it was time for both Richt to leave and Georgia to find someone else.

That action has consequences, though. One is that the program would backslide a bit—2016 was definitely a slide—though that’s expected when a new coach comes in.

With any backslide comes the inevitable whisper of doubt. Can Kirby Smart actually coach? Was he a dogged recruiter who played second fiddle to King Saban? Did Smart err in hiring Jim Chaney?

If you remember how things played out a year ago—and let’s be honest, you do since this is a Georgia blog read by like, five Georgia fans—Smart looked every bit the rookie more than once, breathing life into the fear that Georgia could have chosen poorly.

Those whispers of doubt have been consistent for much of the past year, and they’ll only grow if things stay as they were in 2016. However a strong year this year can change everything.

That’s sort of the theme of 2017 for me. Georgia is on an edge, where the success or failure of the team will tilt the program to one side or the other. Another 7-5 or 8-4 year and the criticisms of Smart will come into sharper focus while growing in volume.

A 9-3 (maybe) or 10-2+ season (definitely) will do the opposite, however. Georgia will look to be in the ascendency with a dynamic recruiter stocked with five-star talent waiting to be unleashed.

If Smart drops four or more games for the second consecutive season the recruiting vultures will be out in full force, and while Georgia’s class is shaping up, it’s lagging behind where it usually is this time of year. After back-to-back four loss seasons, the only thing Smart could hang his hat on would be his recruiting. If that were to take a dip, he’d be in the Muschamp Zone.

Dawgnation published a piece earlier this summer wherein it reported several recruits were talking about the need to see Georgia start winning big. (Editor’s note: get in line, kids, since I’ve been on that train before you were a glimmer in your dad’s eye). That feeling resonates with almost everyone I talk to. It’s time to see Georgia win something, even if it’s a down SEC East division.

The good news is 2017 is there for the taking. Georgia’s schedule is neither a gauntlet nor a breeze, highlighted by stout roadies with Auburn, Tennessee, and Notre Dame. The home slate is tricky if not difficult, featuring Mississippi State, South Carolina, and Missouri.

The floor for this team should be eight wins. The ceiling is probably 11, and the answer will likely come from those three tough road games plus the Cocktail Party. The East is as winnable as it will be for the next several years as it seems as though it’s on a rebound.

Butch Jones and Tennessee failed to capitalize on its window last season, and Jones is now feeling the brunt of that failure. Smart doesn’t have the luxury of following Derek Dooley, however.

Richt’s program was sliding, but ever so slightly as the team could still win nine regular season games. Smart can’t claim he was dealt a disaster that requires half a decade to clean like Jones could. The excuses/reasons for 2016 went away the moment the TCU bowl game ended.

Smart cashed in his one-year mulligan back in January.

It’s time for Georgia to be what Georgia should be. 2017 is the year we’ll learn what Smart the coach is all about. We know the man can recruit, but can he develop his staff and his roster? If the answer is yes, the future is going to be bright in Athens. If 2017 looks a lot like 2016, however, warm up the seat and get ready for the bumpiest offseason in Athens we’ve seen in a long time.

What to make of Kirby Smart’s inaugural year, and what 2017 might bring

What to make of Kirby Smart’s inaugural year, and what 2017 might bring

Life is all about expectations, and if you were one of the many Georgia fans that expected great things from Kirby Smart’s inaugural season you were left disappointed. I was somewhat in the middle. At first I had the Dawgs 8-4 (losing to Tenn, Florida, and Auburn plus UNC). I then put UNC in the win column.

I never saw Vanderbilt coming, though I did admit Georgia Tech worried me. All in all I would say I lean to being disappointed by the season, though not in any major way. Losing to Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech at home is inexcusable, but beating a North Carolina and Auburn were nice scalps, too.

But I want to take a more macro look at the season and what I feel needs to be improved upon the most heading into next year, where some see the Dawgs bouncing back while others see another long year.While I wasn’t thrilled with Kirby’s first year as head coach, when you look at the previous six head coaches’ first seasons his wasn’t too far off the pace setter.

  • 8-5 (4-4) Kirby
  • 8-4 (5-3) Richt
  • 5-6 (3-5) Donnan
  • 6-6 (4-3) Goff
  • 7-3-1 (3-2) Dooley
  • 3-7 (2-5) Griffith
  • 5-6 (1-3) Butts

Now, Kirby’s opening year came off of a 10-3 season, which makes his 8-5 look less impressive, but anyone who sat through Richt’s final season knows that 10-3 wasn’t anything to gloat about. Having said that, here are my thought on the season and what I’m looking for in 2017.

Things I saw that I expected to see

-First year mistakes on the sidelines and on the field. Jacob Eason looked every bit like the true freshman he was. He would make one throw that left you thinking about the Heisman in two years then he’d immediately make one that had you looking at Greyson Lambert with a hopeful eye.

On the sidelines Kirby was the young, excitable coach we expected, but with that came some clock management blunders. It’s always hard to go from the right hand man to THE MAN, and I hope Kirby got most of his rookie mistakes out of the way along with his QB.

-Nick Chubb isn’t back yet. No, he’s not some scrub, but Chubb wasn’t the dominant back we saw in 2014 and the first part of 2015. He lacked speed (see above clip, which would have been a TD two years ago) and burst to the outside and he never seemed to trust his knee and ask it to perform the jump cut that made him devastating. With Chubb (and Georgia’s best RB, Sony Michel) coming back for their senior years, I’m hopeful we’ll see the “old Nick Chubb” in 2017 and the dominant running game will return.

-Offensive woes shouldn’t have caught anyone by surprise. Jim Chaney is viewed by many as a very forward thinking pro-style offensive coordinator, but his numbers have never been super impressive. Add to that a rookie coach who learned from the master of the “don’t hurt us” style of offense who handed the keys over to a true freshman and voila!, we get what we got.

I’m less skeptical of Chaney than most Georgia fans for a few reasons. One, they had a new system with a new offensive line coach and a true freshman QB. Two, their best offensive player wasn’t the same back, meaning churning out 7 yards per carry wasn’t happening. Lastly, the wide receivers weren’t reliable. So you have an inexperienced QB, and star RB coming off of injury, and a group of WRs you can’t fully trust. I’m not sure what offensive coordinator would excel with those conditions.

Things I saw that I did not expect to see

-I did not think the offensive line would be a disaster. I wasn’t expecting Tyler Catalina, the Rhode Island transfer, to be some stud. In fact I said him coming to UGA was both good and bad news. But I didn’t expect the senior center, Brandon Kublanow, to get bullied as much as he did. I didn’t expect Greg Pyke, a road-grading OG, to have to play RT. Sam Pittman is considered one of the best OL coaches in college football, but he has to do more with what should be a deeper OL in 2017. I’m not expecting the OL to be dominant a la Alabama, but I am expecting a solid amount of improvement from 2016.

-Georgia’s red zone defense was comically bad. The team finished 36th in total defense from a yards-per-play standpoint, which was solid if not spectacular. Yet when teams got inside the 20 yard line Georgia’s defense went to hell, finishing 121st in red zone touchdown conversions. They failed to bow up and hold teams to field goals and it cost them some games.

-The young defensive lineman were better than I thought. David Marshall was a late addition to the class and he played major minutes from the jump. Julian Rochester looked like the 5* DT he once was before he added too much weight. Tyler Clark and Michail Carter added quality depth behind Trenton Thompson and John Atkins. Georgia still lacks consistent outside pressure, but the interior of the defensive line is going to be beastly the next few years.

Things I need to see in 2017 for it to be a success

-Eason has to read the field better and take the easy chunk plays he missed in 2016. Terry Godwin was open deep down the field in almost every game at least once, yet Eason almost rarely (if ever) connected. That has to change. I’m not saying Eason needs to turn into Peyton Manning, but he needs to be a lot closer to Jacob Coker by the time we hit the opening weekend. If the deep shot is open, hit it. That simple.

-Georgia needs to woodshed the bad teams it faces. Losing to Auburn or Tennessee on the road happens, but letting Nicholls State hang with you is inexcusable. Good teams beat bad teams into the ground, and Georgia has to start doing that with regularity.

-A wide receiver, literally any wide receiver, needs to step up and consistently make plays. Georgia doesn’t need a Heisman candidate, but it needs a Chris Conley or a Michael Bennett-type player who is reliable. No more easy drops.Whether that WR is Godwin, Javon Wims, Riley Ridley, or anyone else it doesn’t matter. But someone needs to step up.

Way too early 2017 season prediction

I still think Georgia is another year away from truly contending for anything of note. That doesn’t mean it can’t win the SEC East, which will be very competitive in 2017. I expect the bottom of the division to come up while the top (Florida and Tennessee) slide back a bit. Georgia has four road games of note (Auburn, Tennessee, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech) plus Florida in Jacksonville. Expecting anything better than 10-2 is lunacy. Pending some catastrophic rash of injuries or payer departures, I think 9-3 is in play and winning the SEC East should be a reasonable expectation. There are too many “ifs” for UGA to have sights set on anything above winning the East. The offensive line is going to have to gel. The QB is going to have to make a major leap. The coach is going to have to do likewise. I do think 2018 is going to be huge for Georgia, but I hope others will give Kirby one more year to right the ship.

PODCAST | Barner hate week edition

PODCAST | Barner hate week edition

Dave and I are back to break down the latest comings and goings related to the Georgia Bulldogs. We look back at Georgia’s win over Kentucky and get Dave’s viewpoint as he was in the crowd to see it happen.

We then transition to the Auburn game where I don’t have much positivity, though I do think Georgia keeps it from being a true blowout. Why? I think Auburn’s rushing attack has been feasting on bad defenses for the last month and a half and this will be the first time it faces a competent one on the road all season.

Also, Auburn’s RB and QB are expected to play, but both could be limited in some form or fashion. Not sure that puts the game in play, but it can’t hurt.

As always please leave any and all feedback in the comments or hit me up on Twitter (@ParrishWalton).