This is awkward.
Georgia opens the 2016 season and the Kirby Smart era in the Dome on Saturday. The opponent? The barely-border rival North Carolina Tar Heels. The programs share a lot of similarities– their stadiums are built on the same footprint by the same architect, Dooleys led them to their respective promised land, and they both somehow gave me degrees.
As a lifelong Carolina fan, I have lived through some incredibly lean times. Last year’s 11-3 campaign was the Tar Heels’ best since an 11-1 1998 season, which ended in Mack Brown going to Texas. Refraining from any trite cliches, I’m just looking forward to seeing my two schools square off and hoping its not too lopsided a blowout.
This is what you should expect to see from Carolina on Saturday:
An explosive offense.
The 2015 Tar Heels led the country in yards per play, at over 7. They scored over 4 points per possession. And they return 8 starters.
Among them, you have four offensive linemen I won’t bother naming, and a crazy collection of skill talent.
Fortunately for Georgia, Carolina’s most explosive weapon, Mack Hollins, will be on the sideline for the first half for this targeting call…from last year’s bowl game. Problems with that rule aside, the lack of a 6’3 burner who led the nation at over 24 yards per catch (30/745/8) last year will require other options to step up. As such, 6’5 senior Bug Howard (29/488/4) and slot man Ryan Switzer (55/697/6) will see a lot of the early targets.
Feeding them the rock is Mitch Trubisky, who, while a first-time starter, has been the heir apparent to the Carolina quarterback job for three years. Its amazing that he didn’t transfer out, and Heels fans are thankful. Last year, he only completed 85% of his passes for 6 TD’s, 0 INT, and a mind-boggling 226.4 passer rating.
I’m serious y’all, Carolina has some weapons.
Larry Fedora likes to keep his offense balanced in a perfect world, but will attempt to exploit whatever the defense gives him. As such, if Georgia goes two high safeties to protect the air attack, the ground game could flourish.
Junior RB Elijah Hood led all P5 running backs with 4.0 yards after contact per carry last year, and totaled 1463 yards and 17 TD. As you’ll see below, Hood is a head down and move forward back. With breakaway speed, he’d be in the Fournette/McAffrey/Chubb/Cook conversation. Shifty T.J. Logan went for 400 and 5 on about 6 per carry. A big part of that was the threat of last year’s QB, Marquise Williams, keeping the ball himself. Trubisky will have to keep the Dawgs’ front seven honest if Hood and Logan are to repeat that efficiency.
By any metric you can find, even schedule-adjusted ones like the S&P+, this is by far a better offense than any Georgia faced last year. If Trubisky doesn’t repeat Williams’ frustrating tendnecy to turn the ball over in key spots, look out.
Having said that…
The run D is atrocious.
Like, 645 yards to Baylor’s single wing in the bowl game atrocious. There were a few excuses (injuries, suspensions along the DL) but they just got MANHANDLED. The young guys are a year older, the line (especially the interior) has plenty of 4-star talent, but…
- The DE’s are BAD. The best of the bunch, Dajuan Drennon, will not play on Saturday. The Heels will go with two unheralded rotation guys, Mikey Bart and Tyler Powell, on the edges. Powell is a converted DT, which seems terrifying…maybe he’ll hold up better against the run?
- The LB’s are RAW. Gone are Shak Rashad and Jeff Schoettmer, and in is basically a whole new linebacking corps. MIKE Andre Smith showed flashes last year, but is anchoring the D as a true sophomore. Cayson Collins is a beast, but was a rotation guy last year because he (self-admittedly) didn’t understand Gene Chizik’s watered-down concepts. The Heels will play true freshmen and walk-ons behind these guys.
Basically, if Georgia gets any second-level blocks, its lights out. I expect a lot of outside zone to exploit the DE’s, and force the safeties into the box.
That’s a good thing for Georgia with true freshman Jacob Eason behind center, because…
The secondary, corners especially, are pretty damn good.
Best corner duo in the nation? Probably not. But somebody at ProFootballFocus thinks so. Both Desmond Lawrence and M.J. Stewart are fluid, rangy corners who should smother bigger guys like Michael Chigbu, and physically dominate the Reggie Davis, Isaiah McKenzie types. Both break incredibly well on balls in the air, so Eason can’t force throws.
Due to Georgia’s run game, Carolina will likely leave these two on an island a good bit to help with run support. This leads me to the biggest advantage Georgia actually has: overcommitted LB/S on guys like JEBBLAZE, Jackson Harris, and Isaac Nauta. I expect Jim Chaney to exploit the middle seam often, and in so doing, accomplish two things:
- Give Jacob Eason some easy throws to establish a rhythm;
- Soften the middle of the field for one Nick Chubb;
Special Teams: Advantage Carolina.
The aforementioned Switzer? If you’ve heard his name as an SEC person, its likely for his exploits returning punts. He has seven in his three years, tied for an NCAA record with Wes Welker. All things being equal, he and Isaiah McKenzie are about the same player…difference being Carolina has actually had special teams coaching over the past four years.
PK Nick Weiler was GODAWFUL two years ago, and…awesome last year. He credited yoga with curing his yips, so…yeah.
This really does set up to be an excellent game. Carolina will move the ball quite well against Georgia’s D, and Georgia will likely run for 250+ on Carolina’s.
Georgia’s desire to play ball control will play well, I think. Chizik’s D is very ‘bend-but-don’t-break’, so it’ll be up to Eason to make a couple of plays in the red zone to demoralize the Heels with some long drives ending in TD’s, not field goals (or attempts thereof).
Carolina’s desire to play fast will further tire the defense, but the offense is one that can explode for four touchdowns over the course of 12 plays.
I think superior defensive talent and depth is the difference here, as Georgia wins 38-33.
The skeptic may call it unsettled. I call it sandbaggery.
Kirby Smart released his first game week depth chart this morning, and…he may as well not have. The word “OR” appears at 16 spots in the two-deep, including 12 starting spots.
In a season where we don’t yet know who will be starting at quarterback for Michigan, Texas, Notre Dame, or Alabama, the trend of playing lineups close to the vest is growing.
Let’s take a look at the “ORs”!
Not many guys listed as solid starters on this UGA offensive depth chart. pic.twitter.com/m5hb5YEU9i
— Marc Weiszer (@marcweiszer) August 29, 2016
QB: Starting with a BS call on Kirby. Eason is starting.
HB: Chubb, if not on a pitch count (as Kirby said today) is starting.
FB: Six one way, half a dozen the other.
WR: Chigbu vs. Godwin scares me a little bit, as it would state that Godwin hasn’t taken the step forward Georgia needs to rely on him as the top target. Davis vs. McKenzie was moot, in my mind, due to the thought that Chigbu would be the SE and Godwin the Flanker, so…this interests me.
LT: Catalina vs. Wynn: Wynn will start somewhere, and it sounds like the staff is high on Catalina, making…
…LG: Wynn vs. Sims moot.
RG: With Wynn at LG, Sims would likely take RG over Lamont Gaillard.
So three positions (TE, C, RT) are settled going into week 1. If you believe that, I’ve got an inside track on selling the man-made lake they’re putting in the Georgia Dome’s place next year.
On defense, not quite so much of the same, as the position battles still active are quite intriguing.
UGA defensive depth chart. pic.twitter.com/J4IkdQddqq
— Marc Weiszer (@marcweiszer) August 29, 2016
Reggie Carter, Natrez Patrick, and Roquan Smith are all vying for the MIKE and WILL jobs. As much as I’ve heard Smith’s name this fall, I expect him to take WILL with Carter manning the inside.
At nickel, new guy Maurice Smith is battling Rico McGraw. They’re both going to see a lot of snaps on Saturday.
**PROGRAMMING NOTE: There are two podcasts featuring myself and Andrew lost in the dark world of the internet, hoping they emerge because they took forever and were good. Hoping to get those up so I can interview a UNC friend for his takes on the game later in the week.**
Of all the almost-ness in the SEC East, the almost-ness of Florida should be the most alarming. Georgia fans won’t like hearing that any more than I like writing it, but the Gators really aren’t that far off. But the narrative around the program is somehow lumped into that of Georgia and Tennessee despite more cause for optimism.
Will Muschamp was not a great coach. No one (except maybe the administration at South Carolina) would make that argument. But he took his team to a BCS Bowl in his second season at Florida. He went 5-3 against his two biggest rivals (Georgia and Tennessee). He never lost to the Volunteers (I guess we’ve already decided that Florida’s 11-game winning streak in that rivalry is just finished?). He beat the tar out of a top-10 Georgia team just weeks before getting fired. He drew an insanely difficult schedule. He played 18 ranked opponents during his tenure. LSU is on the schedule every year; Alabama was on there twice; FSU was peaking; etc.
Did he succeed at the level Florida fans expect? Obviously not. But he had more success than he gets credit for. He averaged seven wins per season at Florida. Tennessee has had exactly one season with more than seven wins since Fulmer was canned.
But I’m not making a case for Muschamp’s Gators. I’m (reluctantly) making a case for Jim McElwain’s Gators. Because guess what: that guy won 10 games in his first season and won the division in question.
It was rarely pretty, but he found ways to win ugly ball games in the same way Butch Jones finds ways to lose them. He won on the road in a close game against Kentucky. He won at home in dramatic fashion against Tennessee. He beat the ever-living tar out of Ole Miss (ranked third in the nation at that point). He crushed Mizzou on the road. He embarrassed Georgia and all but ended Richt’s tenure. He survived against Vanderbilt and South Carolina.
The wheels came off late in the year. No denying that. Getting blown-out by Florida State, losing to Alabama in the conference championship game and losing a bowl in embarrassing fashion is no way to go out. But know what’s worse than losing an SEC Championship game? Not appearing in one. So score that one to Mac’s tally.
Of the three teams in contention in the East, Florida was the best last season—by record, by divisional finish, by head-to-head competition, you name it. And coaching staff stability should benefit Florida where it might hurt Georgia. And a relatively recent history of winning (2012 BCS Bowl, 2015 SEC Championship Game) is something Tennessee players can’t relate to. Seriously. The last time Tennessee went to a BCS-caliber bowl (not sure what they’re called now) was the Fiesta Bowl on January 2, 2000.
Florida is almost almost a good team. And compared to the rest of the East, Florida might actually look good.
That’s all I got/
This is the second in a seven-part series entitled Almost: A Preview of the SEC East. Yesterday, we discussed the University of Tennessee’s almost-ness, so check that out.
One could argue that December 1, 2012 marked the beginning of the end for The Georgia Way™. On that particular Saturday, The Georgia Way™ fell painstakingly yet definitively short against the Crimson Tide of Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. Thereafter, The Georgia Way™ seemed to do everything in its power to euthanize itself over a 36-month period.
The Georgia Way™ found a way to turn preseason optimism into a narrow defeat against a renewed rival to open the 2013 season. The Georgia Way™ severed ACL after ACL while losing five of its final nine contests (including disheartening losses to lower-ranked Missouri at home, un-ranked Vanderbilt and un-ranked Nebraska in a bowl game) to close out that campaign. The next year, The Georgia Way™ self-diagnosed itself in a way that only The Georgia Way™ could as a star running back (and the best football player in the country) faced a lengthy suspension. Even a rival at its low point (Florida) and a little sister (Georgia Tech) beat up on the afflicted in 2014. And last year, The Georgia Way™ performed exactly to expectation—winning 10 games but failing to defeat a single ranked opponent and losing to Alabama, Tennessee and Florida by a combined margin of 59 points—as it took its final breath.
We didn’t know it then, but The Georgia Way™ began dying way back in 2012. And we didn’t know it then, but that’s probably about the time The Alabama Process began gestating in Athens, Georgia. The first evolution of this new lifeform saw a former Nick Saban Assistant (Jeremy Pruitt) arrive with a few other Bama connects (Kevin Sherrer and a slew of unmarked assistants). And then came the more recent iteration with the hiring of longtime Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart.
Make no mistake about it, the Smart hire was much less about “bringing Kirby home” than it was about “Bringing The Alabama Process to Athens.” Sure, it’s a great story that Smart played in Athens. It’s lovely that he coached there early in his career and married a former Bulldog student-athlete. But he wasn’t hired for what he accomplished with UGA. His 13 interceptions as a DB didn’t matter one iota; neither did his stint as a grad assistant in 1999 or his lone year as running backs coach in 2005.
All that mattered was:
- 2008: 12-2, Final Ranking No. 6
- 2009: 14-0, Final Ranking No. 1, SEC Champs, BCS Champs
- 2010: 10-3, Final Ranking No. 10
- 2011: 12-1, Final Ranking No. 1, BCS Champs
- 2012: 13-1, Final Ranking No. 1, SEC Champs, BCS Champs
- 2013: 11-2, Final Ranking No. 7
- 2014: 12-2, Final Ranking No. 4, SEC Champs
- 2015: 14-1, Final Ranking No. 1, SEC Champs, CFB Playoff Champs
In eight years as Nick Saban’s top assistant, Kirby Smart never saw Alabama finish the season outside of the Top 10 (as ranked by the AP). The Crimson Tide won half of the national championships over that time period and half the SEC’s championships. The Crimson Tide won 98 games in eight years and lost only 12.
Georgia hired Kirby Smart to reinvent the wheel. Georgia hired Kirby Smart to make football great again. Georgia hired Kirby Smart in hopes that Number One’s Number Two might actually match or surpass Number One.
None of this should come as a surprise to keen followers of Georgia football. But from the outside looking in, Greg McGarity & Co. sure have tried to maintain a “business as usual” facade while radically altering day-to-day operations within the football program. They didn’t coincidentally hire a longtime Bama assistant. They hired Saban Lite.
Look no further than GeorgiaDogs.com for an official account this recreation.
This spring McGarity commented on the size of the football program’s support staff, saying (per Chip Towers of DawgNation), “It’s not, ‘School A has 40; I have to have 40.'”
But out of the overflow of the heart the Coaching Staff Bio page speaks.
Georgia now tallies 46 people on its football staff tab. The only SEC school with more listed (online) is Kentucky with 48. I mean, of course Kentucky, the program that gives Mark Stoops a contract extension and raise every time he successfully finds the practice field, has 48 total staff members. But 46 is a LOT. We’re talkin’ Player Relations Coordinators and Directors of Player Wellness; Quality Control Assistants and Graduate Assistants; Directors of Video Operations, Assistant Video Coordinators and Recruiting Video Coordinators; Directors of Strength and Conditioning as well as Senior Associate Directors of Strength and Conditioning and even Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coaches. You get the idea.
This is a very Alabama staff. And not just because of the numbers of job titles.
The terms “Alabama,” “Crimson Tide,” “The Tide,” “UA” and “Nick Saban” appear in staff bios exactly 54 times. And it’s worth noting that I ignored non-contextual / generic reference to the state of Alabama, Alabama-Birmingham and South Alabama. Only “UA” references to the University of Alabama were logged. Further, almost one-third (15 of 46) of the staff members listed don’t even have bios yet. Fifty-four references to the top program in the nation might 75 by the time every bio is added.
If the goal here is track Alabama, Georgia’s Human Resources Department seems to be doing a decent job so far.
But that doesn’t mean Georgia is almost Alabama. Right now, Georgia is still much closer to the 2015 Georgia Bulldogs than the 2015 Alabama Crimson Tide, and that gap makes the use of almost damn-near laughable. Consider a few measurables:
|Category||2015 Alabama||2015 Georgia|
|Top 25 Wins||8||0|
|Top 10 Wins||5||0|
What’s more, these finishes are every bit as indicative of the recent state of both programs as they are of the singular 2015 campaign for each respective team. Alabama is (and has been since 2008) the best program in the country. On the other side, Georgia is (and has been for most of recent history) a middle-of-the-SEC program. That might be a hard pill for for Dawg fans to swallow (and it was painful for me to write), but ultimately Georgia is in its current wheel-reinventing state because even with the two other traditional powers in the division down and with omnipresent menace Steve Spurrier reeling, Georgia missed out on winning the weaker division in the SEC in 2013, 2014 and 2015. That’s pretty middle-of-the-pack.
But back to almost Bama and the 2015 season analysis. Consider how hard it would be for Georgia to match 2015 Alabama. The last time the Bulldogs finished with the top spot in the country was in 1980. Georgia has literally never won 14 games in a single season and the last time Georgia lost just one game was in 2002. That was also the last time Georgia won eight SEC games (both Alabama in 2015 and Georgia in 2002 include the SECCG). Alabama won eight games against ranked opponents last year; Georgia beat eight ranked opponents in total during the 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 seasons. Bama defeated five Top 10 foes last year. Georgia has only defeated five Top 10 teams since defeating Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl after the 2007 season. Bama won the division last year. Georgia won its division in 2012.
I knocked Tennessee for not being “close” based solely on 2015 results, and by the same measurement Georgia is on the exact same page. Yes, Georgia won 10 games last season. But no, the Bulldogs didn’t really beat anyone of note. Which of these victories was anything more than a game Georgia would have no excuse losing?
- Louisiana-Monroe at home
- At Vanderbilt
- South Carolina at home
- Southern University at home
- Missouri at home
- Kentucky at home
- Auburn on the road
- Georgia Southern at home
- Georgia Tech on the road
LA-Mo didn’t beat a single Power 5 Conference opponent and won just two games over all. Vandy’s only two Power 5 Conference wins came against other schools on this list (Missouri and Kentucky). South Carolina beat North Carolina and Vanderbilt. South Carolina was so bad that Spurrier quite mid-season which was the second most surprising thing to happen involving Gamecock football (most surprising was Greyson Lambert completing 24 of 25 passes against them). Southern did not beat any FBS foes. Missouri’s only Power 5 win was against South Carolina. Kentucky’s only Power 5 wins were South Carolina and Missouri. Auburn was the best team of the bunch with Power 5 Wins over Louisville, Kentucky and Texas A&M, but the Tigers missed bowl season. Georgia Southern won zero Power 5 games. Georgia Tech won one – against Florida State (quite hilariously).
That right there is nine regular season wins. Toss in a meaningless bowl win over Penn State and you have double-digits. And if you think 1. Tennessee is a good team and 2. That almost beating good teams should count for something, then give the Bulldogs credit for almost beating Tennessee on the road. But I don’t personally believe either of those things.
So I wouldn’t say that Georgia is almost Alabama in any way, shape or form.
But to be sure, there is optimism to cling to.
Georgia is immensely talented (not quite on the level of Alabama, but only one of Georgia’s last five recruiting classes failed to crack the Top 10 per 247Sports). And the coaching staff is presumably solid. After all, if ever there was an assistant coach geared to replicate Nick Saban, surely it would be his most-tenured high-ranking lieutenant. But there’s a multifaceted danger in assuming that Smart can become Saban.
First and foremost, no one prior to Nick Saban ever became Nick Saban. And I don’t mean that merely in a literal sense. I mean that Nick Saban is the best coach college football has ever seen. To win with this degree of consistency, with this amount of pressure and with this much competition is insane. With that in mind, we’d be foolish to assume that Smart will ever match Saban. At best, we should hope he competes with him. And if you witnessed Georgia’s 2015 matchup against the Crimson Tide, you know that would be one hell of an improvement.
Secondly, we need to remember that Saban didn’t become Saban overnight. We tend to remember Saban’s 9-2 campaign in 1999 at Michigan State, his BCS National Championship at LSU in 2003 and his four national titles in the last seven years at Alabama. But, we forget some of those early stages of The Process.
Nick Saban was 25-22-1 in his first four seasons at East Lansing. Over that time period he never won a bowl game or conference title.
Nick Saban never finished better than 5-3 in conference play and lost a total of 12 games during his first three seasons in Baton Rouge.
Nick Saban lost his final four regular season games (including a matchup with Louisiana-Monroe) during his first season in Tuscaloosa. Several games were vacated as punishment for a previous regime’s missteps, but the outcome of the games itself that year resulted in a 7-6 record (vs. a 6-6 record the year before under ousted Mike Shula).
It may take Kirby Smart two or three years to right this ship and he may never be the captain that Saban is. The good news, however, is that he is inheriting a stronger crew and more calm waters than what greeted Saban when he arrived at Alabama in 2007. So in that regard it’s almost possible to imagine what the program is capable.
With that in mind, Georgia belongs squarely in the conversation for the SEC East divisional crown (along with Tennessee and Florida), but to say that will be enough to make this team feel like Alabama…well, maybe we’ll get a chance to see in December. But my gut tells me that the best possible result for this team is “this is no longer the 2015 Georgia team.”
Almost Alabama still seems a ways off.
That’s all I got/
For all the nice things one can say about the job Jim Harbaugh has done at Michigan, he’s not perfect.
See, a couple of typos and clerical errors cost the Wolverines a highly-touted offensive line recruit. They misspelled his name and thanked him for attending a camp he…did not attend.
Harbaugh was unable to keep one recruit, but he retained Clint Copenhaver. Wisconsin could not sway him, and one wonders why.
— Clint Copenhaver (@copietime43) August 23, 2016