Mailbag: SEC championship edition

semerson@macon.comNovember 29, 2012 

ATHENS - We already know that Shawn Williams’ words carry a lot of weight. His very sharp, biting words. But before he was accusing teammates of playing soft, he was making another eye-opening statement … which is also turning out to be prescient.

Back in August, the idea of Todd Gurley as just “the other freshman tailback” started to turn as soon as Georgia starting scrimmaging. The gaudy stats were one thing, but then came statements like this:

“All I see is that (number) 3, and I’m like: He’s got a little body like Richardson.”

That was Williams, talking about Gurley, comparing him to Trent Richardson. And of course when when I wrote that story it brought snorts and laughter from my Twitter followers, especially those used to preseason heroes who don’t pan out. Even this cautious reporter, in printing Williams’ statement, wrote: “Before anybody starts a Heisman campaign for Gurley, who still might only be fourth on the depth chart, this should be pointed out: Williams saw the big Gurley run from the sideline. It came against the second-team defense.”

Well, you know the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey (dated reference, Google it) would say: Gurley did not turn out to be the fourth-string tailback, and 1,491 all-purpose yards later, I doubt anybody is laughing at a Richardson comparison now.

Therefore, lesson No. 1: Sometimes the preseason chatter and scrimmage stats are worth something

Lesson No. 2: I’m going to miss Shawn Williams. The kid may not talk too much to the media – he hasn’t this week – but when he does … wow.

Perhaps in the future Williams can take over the mailbag. In the meantime, however, you’re stuck with me. So let’s get to it.

1-As I see it this whole game comes down to the trenches. We hold our own against the run on D, open some holes for Gurshall, and give Murray time to throw and we win. Handily. It's not rocket science. Seems we have the overall edge in terms of skill positions (maybe you won't agree) but for that we get no banana pudding and Cool Whip after dinner. Gonna have to control the line of scrimmage on both sides for four quarters. Frankly I don't feel so good about that, especially on offense. But then, ahhhh, I have a dream. What do you think our chances are of just holding our own on the line? D and O?

2-Finally, I think we have to stop playing the fair catch game on punts. When Bama punts we need to turn Gurley or Marshall loose. We don't need good hands guy Rhett "AllState" McGowan back there catching punts (cause that's all he does is catch). Richt needs to forgive these guys for their past gaffes and turn 'em loose. Put on a prayer shawl and hope they don't do something stupid (Marshall). Breaking a long one is needed big-time against the Tide. We need all the yardage and points we can muster. Can't wave a limp arm in the air and simply start the drive where the ball is caught. Gotta cut the talent loose! What do you think?
- Paul "Low Country Dog In Exile" Sparrow

1-Like any game, this one is likely to be decided at the line of scrimmage, but this one isn’t just hyperbole. It’s not just a matter of how well Georgia’s line can protect Murray and Gurshall, but whether Georgia’s defensive front can get some push and pressure A.J. McCarron. Frankly, I don’t expect the Bulldogs to be able to stop the Crimson Tide rush all game. Murray is going to see pressure, and that’s just the way it’s going to be. The trick, as I wrote in my story today, will be for Murray not to press, to either get throw the ball away or just take the sack. Don’t turn it over. Georgia, unlike last year, really has big-play ability out of its offense, especially in the run game, so that can offset a few sacks and lost-yardage runs. But turnovers can’t be offset.

2-Regarding the punts, I definitely see your point. I said a few weeks ago, in answer to the same question, that there is validity to Georgia’s fair-catch strategy, because it’s offense is so good that you just make sure they get the ball, and not risk a muffed punt. But Alabama has the nation’s best defense, so now a few punt return yards would do some good. Thing is, they’ve been trotting out McGowan so long now it may be too late to change up. But if they did it would likely be Malcolm Mitchell, not either of the freshmen tailbacks.

You hit the nail on the head on my last question, so let's see if you can do it again. There has been a lot of discussion concerning the Bulldogs' use of no-huddle. Are there any specific personnel groupings and match-ups that you see as an advantage for Georgia?
- Scott Shepard, Chattanooga, TN

Georgia’s receivers vs. Alabama’s corners is the best bet. Dee Milliner is an All-American, but he can only cover one guy. Therefore whichever Georgia receiver, out of Tavarres King, Malcolm Mitchell, Rantavious Wooten and Chris Conley – may be an advantage over junior Deion Belue or freshman Geno Smith. Remember how Zach Mettenberger was able to carve up Alabama’s secondary for most of the game? I’m not saying Georgia will automatically be able to do that, but Murray and company certainly could do it.

1- Who has the emotional edge? An Alabama team who has been in these situations before and will probably have more of a "business-like" approach? Or a Georgia team who might be a little more keyed up but can be vulnerable to being over-hyped?

2- Where do you see a match-up that favors UGA that the Dawgs should exploit?
- Dog44, Johnson City, TN

1-It’s hard to tell, so I’ll call it a draw. Georgia is helped by having played in this game last year, but Alabama played in the BCS championship. I was a bit surprised we didn’t hear more of the “no respect” theme from the Bulldogs this week, but you did hear the bravado from the defensive players. Frankly, I’m probably the wrong guy to ask: I thought Georgia had the right even-keel attitude going into the South Carolina game, causing me to switch my pick to Georgia, and look how that turned out. This week, Georgia’s attitude seems to be somewhere in between the pre-South Carolina calm and the pre-Florida anger.

2-I mentioned the potential offensive advantage before. When Georgia is on defense, its talent should create some mismatches, if they play their cards right. Alabama’s tackles have improved, but Jarvis Jones versus anybody, unless it’s Orlando Pace, should be an advantage. The trick will be to get Jones single-blocked, which means Jordan Jenkins, Cornelius Washington or Garrison Smith needs to become a problem for Alabama. Then you have Alec Ogletree, who’s a good bet to have a laser-like focus on the Alabama tailbacks. As for the passing game, Alabama’s receivers aren’t outstanding – there’s no Julio Jones back there – but Georgia’s cornerbacks aren’t all-SEC either. That one is probably a draw, but Bacarri Rambo will make it an advantage if he plays smartly and waits to make plays, instead of trying too hard.

For big games, how willing are other SEC coaches to divulge analysis on a former opponent/division rival? Texas A&M may have been the team to have beaten Bama, but our roadmap against the Tide will be based on what LSU did in the passing game against Bama, given how singular a talent Manziel is.

LSU utilized a fair number of 1-2 WR sets, that were passed out of, to keep more blockers in to negate the defensive pass rush. Lots of medium (10-15 yd) passes along with shorter perimeter passes to keep Bama's D from sitting too far back on passing downs. Mettenberger had a breakout passing game against Bama, no reason Murray can’t either.
- Matt Totten, South Carolina

That’s a pretty decent analysis. But I do wonder how much Georgia will keep guys back to block, given the success it has had spreading it out. If Marlon Brown and Michael Bennett were playing you’d seen a lot of four-wides. But even without them the Bulldogs have shown confidence in the likes of Conley and even Rhett McGowan. Plus the tight ends have been more active in the passing game lately. One other thing to remember: As good as Gurley and Marshall have been running the ball, they haven’t been lights-out as blockers.

As for your opening question, I’m pretty sure coaches don’t call each other before games. Richt won’t be talking to Kevin Sumlin or Les Miles, if I had to guess. There’s enough information out there, especially on film, to be able to figure out what those teams did right against Alabama.

It seems that our offense (and especially Murray) has thrived on playing fast and loose. It would also appear that Bama's back four are not as strong as their front four. Is there any question that our offensive philosophy in this game should be up tempo and use the pass to set up the run?
- James Colvin, Tulsa, OK

I think you're absolutely right. It has to be balanced, though, because an air-it-out approach will result in some quick adjustments by Nick Saban and Kirby Smart. They're not stupid. But I have a hard time seeing Georgia win this game by running the ball 60 percent of the time and running the clock. If the Bulldogs win, I believe it will be via some big plays, whether it be on offense or defense.

Prior to the SCAR game, you suggested the team was as "locked in" as you had seen them. This gave me a good deal of confidence heading into the game, which quickly evaporated immediately after kickoff. What do you think happened between the time of your assessment and kickoff, and how do you view the team's collective mindset heading into Saturday's game?
- Rusty, Atlanta

Send me a receipt for the amount of money you lost betting on Georgia that game, based on my analysis, and I will gladly send you a refund. Again, was I wildly off in that assessment. And since then the players and coaches appear to have realized it was the wrong mindset with which to approach a big game. Hence the bravado from the defense this week, Aaron Murray avoiding the media, and the coaches letting both of those things happen.

I still think Georgia was “locked in” before that South Carolina game. The problem is so were the Gamecocks and their crowd. And there’s a difference between a calm “locked in” and a more emotional, bordering on angry version of “locked in. I think the Bulldogs just got swarmed both by the atmosphere there and the events that quickly transpired after kickoff. I’ve talked to players about it since then, and this week, and they say the lesson from South Carolina is not to let a bad play get to you. They say that happened in that game, and never recovered. Of course, that’s easy to say now, to blame it on emotion rather than just not being a better team.

I have not seen a status anywhere on Mike Thornton and the effects of that chop block that sent him off. Any news? Keep up the great work.
- Scott in Columbia, S.C.

Thanks Scott. Thornton has been out of practice this week with an ankle injury, so he looks doubtful to play in the SEC championship game. (Thornton hasn’t been playing much anyway because he’s third on the depth chart.)

I can’t say for sure whether Thornton was injured on a chop block. The Georgia coaches in the press box certainly felt so right after the play happened – with some colorful language that was picked up on the ESPN live broadcast. But there hasn’t been anything since then.

Seth, I've been told from an Alabama Crimson Tide fan, that's a friend of mine, that "he heard that Georgia is calling for another "BLACK-OUT", with black jerseys & the whole nine yards. Please tell me that this is false. If so, have McGarrity in the locker room to stop this. Just tell me it ain't so!!
- Paul from Grayson

I can tell you it ain’t so. I have heard nothing to that effect, and I’m pretty sure Richt has enough bad memories of 2008 not to go down that road. Your friend may have heard what was attempted by some fans last week. It didn’t really materialize because the team didn’t push for it.

1.How would you rank the top six teams in the SEC as it stands today if they were to play round-robin?

2.If Hutson Mason has to pull his redshirt at some point in the next two games, can’t they just start the same process with him again next year?

3.Is Christian LeMay transferring? I hear his brother’s backing out of his commitment to UGA. Is that a sign big brother s leaving??

4.Because the last two could possibly be answered in a sentence or less…Fruitcake or Pumpkin Pie?
- Scott C. Davis, Montgomery, AL

1-That’s so hard to say. I mean, South Carolina beat Georgia, which beat Florida, which beat Texas A&M, which beat Alabama, which beat LSU, which beat South Carolina. The difference in schedules doesn’t give you enough of a sample size. There’s the problem with bigger conferences. Even in the East Division: People may knock Georgia, but I was there and it was a better team than Florida. But South Carolina was a better team than Georgia. And Florida was a better team than South Carolina. Bottom line, anybody who claims to know who is definitely better than who is just talking out of their you-know-what.

2-Yes, Mason could conceivably redshirt again next year, assuming Murray returns. That could in fact be the backup plan if Mason has to be forced into duty.

3-I’d prefer not to speculate on any offseason movement yet. But I can say I haven’t heard any rumblings of his brother de-committing. You never quite count on anyone until they enroll or sign, but I haven’t heard that.

4-Pumpkin pie. I don’t even like fruitcake. Although I’ve been accused often of being one.

I know that this week is a big game week and all the focus from players and media is about this game, but as a long time UGA fan I was wondering if anyone has taken a look at what this team will be like next year. I read your articles everyday and I know you mentioned that recruiting and early entry into the draft will be a big factor in next year’s team, but I was wondering what the sheer numbers (seniors, juniors, sophomores) of the team will be like nest year. I know several starting juniors will have to make a decision but can you give us an idea of the numbers for each class for next year.
- Cleveland Williams, III, Stone Mountain, GA

You’re right, it is a big game week, so I can’t really break it down now. (I’ve eaten lunch at my desk while working every day this week.) But bottom line is Georgia, given its attrition from last season, is ready to have a full signing class, with a bunch of early enrollees. Conceivably only three defensive starters will be back: Garrison Smith, Jordan Jenkins and Damian Swann. (That’s with Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree leaving, and possibly Kwame Geathers). The offense will return every key player except Tavarres King and Marlon Brown, unless Aaron Murray decides to bolt. Two weeks ago I would have called that extremely unlikely, but the more Tony Dungy talks, the more you wonder if other NFL personnel people feel the same way. We’ll see.

Follow Seth Emerson at @sethemerson.

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