Mailbag: Post-SEC championship version

semerson@macon.comDecember 6, 2012 

This is a week where no introductory section is necessary. In fact, it would only get in the way. So let's get on with the important stuff: Your questions, and my attempts to answer them.

Although I don't yet have the strength to watch the replay, I cannot say I have anything other than immense pride in the Dawgs for their efforts on Saturday. A muscle twitch here or there in the right or wrong direction for either team and it's the UGA coaches saying Bama deserves to be in a BCS bowl. I realize the national media has already begun (whilst tangentially acknowledging the epic nature of the game itself) labeling UGA (along with Richt and Murray) as a team that can't win the big one. I am not sure about the rest of the Bulldog nation but I saw a different team playing in the Dome, a team-wide attitude of rising to the occasion and refusing to be denied their shot - not some shrinking violet. A defense that was exhausted after 3 straight weeks of defending the run, still battling and getting the stop the offense needed to make a run at a last minute drive that fell just short. I know time will tell but, do you see the SEC Championship game as a watershed moment in this program?
- James Colvin, Tulsa, OK

That’s a pretty good way of putting it, James. The reaction I’ve seen nationally from the SEC championship is that it was the best college game many people have seen in awhile – and that Georgia should have received a BCS bid over Florida. (In the end, that doesn’t really matter too much, other than preferring to be in New Orleans than Orlando for New Year’s. A matchup with Louisville or Nebraska? Eh.)

The fact is that in the program’s biggest game in 30 years, the Bulldogs didn’t win, but they played very well against a team that may win its third national championship in four years. At a minimum, Georgia showed that it wasn’t necessarily a product of its scheduled, and belonged in that tier with LSU, Texas A&M, South Carolina and Florida. A more convincing people loss would have said otherwise.

Something else to watch: If Georgia goes out and pummels Nebraska, or at least wins convincingly, there’s a chance of finishing No. 2 in the final polls. It would probably require Alabama beating Notre Dame and Florida losing to Louisville – or at least playing sloppy – but it could very well happen.

Despite the loss of multiple seniors and (probably) some notable early departures, could Georgia´s defense actually be better next year assuming no suspensions and the return of Todd Grantham? Seems to me that the front seven will be pretty strong and if we can find some immediate freshmen contributors in the secondary, we might be ok back there, too.
- Joey, Argentina

On paper it shouldn’t be better, but on paper the 2012 defense only ranks 27th nationally in yards allowed, and sixth in the SEC. So could I see a defense low on experience, but high on raw talent, end up putting up better numbers than that next year? I could see that, yes. I’m not sure I’d bet my first-born child on it, but I could see it.

Let’s assume Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree are gone. Kwame Geathers is up in the air in my mind. If he stays, that makes essentially five starters are back: Defensive end Garrison Smith (who has already said he’s coming back for his senior year), linebackers Amarlo Herrera and Jordan Jenkins and cornerback Damian Swann. The latter three all have a chance to be difference-makers, and Jenkins is second on the team in sacks this year. And whether or not Geathers returns, you’ve got at least one starter back from every unit, so that helps.

But who else plays? That leads to our next question.

Biggest Question of the END OF SEASON -> Dawgs Defense will be rocked huge by the draft/graduations, WHO fills those holes???
- Andy M. Johnson, Tallapoosa

Nose tackle bears watching: Geathers is the only one who has a chance to be a difference-maker at that spot next year, so his decision is key. However, Mike Thornton got experience this year, and John Taylor, a freshman who redshirted this year, drew raves from veterans.

I would think Josh Harvey-Clemons will be a key component on the defense somewhere. He wants it to be at safety, because he spent this year learning the spot. But it could end up being inside or outside linebacker. I’ve heard the offensive players and coaches really liked the way Harvey-Clemons played in practice, so it’s a matter of whether the defensive coaches agree, and find a spot for him.

The outside linebacker/defensive end spots will have some options: Chase Vasser will be a senior, Josh Dawson and James DeLoach will be sophomores, and Georgia should also have Leonard Floyd, who played at prep school last year after not qualifying. I would also think that Ramik Wilson, who will be a junior, will get some time at one of the linebacker spots, it’s just a mystery whether it’s inside or outside.

In the secondary, you’re going to see a big competition between new recruits and veterans who haven’t played much. The big question is whether it’ll be someone like Corey Moore or Connor Norman at safety (or both), or a rookie like Tray Matthews or Shaquille Fluker? At cornerback, sophomore Sheldon Dawson should have the inside track to start opposite Swann. But you can’t rule out a recruit such as Brendan Langley or Reggie Wilkerson.

So as you can see, that’s a lot of names, and guys that have a chance to be pretty good. If Jenkins makes the next step, to stardom, and Herrera, Swann and Garrison Smith continue on the upward track, the outlook on defense may not be that bleak at all.

There have been lots of comments about how spiking the ball at the end of the game would have allowed us to run two plays. Let's say Murray does spike the ball but we run the same play with the same outcome, tipped ball falls to Conley. In your opinion, how does the outcome differ? Would we have had time to get off another play?
- Mike

It would be really close. At that point they would definitely try to spike. There were six seconds when Conley fell down, and the snap happened with about 9.5 seconds left. So let’s say they spiked it right away – which at best would have left 14 seconds on the clock. Conley then falls down with about 10 seconds left. At that point they probably would still be able to scramble and spike – but that’s assuming precision timing.

It’s a good argument that ultimately Georgia did the right thing to try to keep Alabama off-balance and unable to substitute, and all that went wrong was the ball being tipped, leading to Conley doing what instinct called for, which was catching it. But the counter-argument is that by spiking it, you have more time to come up with a more high-percentage play.

Okay, I've read the coach's explanation about it taking to long to spike the ball. And it sounds Like UGA actually practices the first down and 16 second situation. But I'm not buying his explanation if it takes 5-6 seconds to call the play and snap the ball. At some point as Murray stands behind center and calls signals (endlessly) - shouldn't Murray make an executive decision and call for the snap (immediately) if there is such a signal and spike the ball? Don't know about you, but that was the longest 6 seconds of my life. Of course, Conley's decision to catch the ball trumps the decision not to spike it, but if we spike it maybe we execute the play a little better.
- Hugh Nash

Conley gets a pass, no pun intended, in my book. He wasn’t the intended receiver, and the ball was just tipped his way and caught it. Yeah, he should’ve let it drop, but how many of us would have had the same instincts?

As for Murray, clearly in hindsight he could have done it if he didn’t feel good about the play, but they thought they had a good play ready. The more I look at it on replay, the more I think it was just the wrong call: Too much little room in the end zone for Malcolm Mitchell to get free, too small a window for Murray to fit, too much chance for the ball to be tipped at the line.

But in Georgia’s defense, while they do practice that situation, it’s impossible to practice the exact situation in terms of seconds left, yard line, spot on field, timeouts left, etc. That’s why, yes, it would have been a good time to spike it and think about a better play to try.

That said, you know what cost Georgia that nobody has talked about? The defense burning a timeout with four minutes left, before Alabama tried third-and-5 from midfield. Yes, it was a big play and worthy of getting the right personnel and plan, but Alabama still got the first down, and a play later A.J. McCarron hit Amari Cooper for the game-winning touchdown. If the defense doesn’t use that timeout, then the offense either has another in its pocket for the final drive, or it at least has more time: Georgia used the final two timeouts on Alabama’s final drive, which resulted in a punt.

Thanks for all your great work. Always a delight. Regardless of the last drive, we gave up 350 yards rushing. I’m not sure of the stats, but In the SECCG last year, we gave up a considerable amount against the run against LSU. We simply cannot stop the run, that’s why we are not at the elite level. Why is that? And do you see any hope for the future in this regard?
- Brandon, Athens

The run defense has been a problem in several big games, whether it’s the two you mentioned or seemingly every time Marcus Lattimore is on the other side. (That likely won’t be an issue next year.) Georgia should have the horses to make the stops, and the fact John Jenkins is graduating can’t be of help. But it’s also debatable whether Grantham and his coaches substitute enough as the game goes on. Sometimes that’s out of their control if the offense is going no-huddle. But when they can substitute, it would probably help to get rest for the guys in the front seven, or at least as much as they can get.

This is probably the millionth time you've been asked some of these questions, but here goes: 1-Aaron Murray - should/will he go pro this year? What do you think will be the determining factor(s) in his decision?
2-Coach Grantham - how would you rate his performance this year? Does his contract have performance-based incentives built into it?
3-Strength & Conditioning - do you think the program has made significant improvements over the last couple of years, or do more staff changes need to be made?
- Dallas Smith, College Park, MD

1-Murray still may not be likely to go, but he’s more likely than he was a month ago. Every time Tony Dungy says he’d take Murray high, you have to think the Georgia coaches are gritting their teeth. The question is how many other NFL people share Dungy’s opinion? The other thing is this year’s quarterback class is pretty weak. How does that affect Murray’s decision? And does the fact the offense is returning basically everybody make Murray want to come back and finally get that SEC and/or BCS title?

2-Grantham’s contract does have incentives, but they’re team-based, on par with Richt’s. (Grantham gets $150,000 for winning the BCS championship, or $75,000 for appearing in the Capital One Bowl, and so on.) Clearly, Grantham didn’t have as strong a year as last year, but he can point to the suspensions as a strong mitigating factor. It’s arguable how much of an effect they had, but ultimately the defense was better over the second half of the season.

3-The S&C program seemed fine to me, when you consider the emphasis since 2011 has been on the fourth quarter: Georgia out-scored opponents 80-65 there this year, and while that’s actually below the performance of the other quarters, it’s skewed by so many games being out of reach at that point. In what ended up being the four most important games, Georgia pummeled Missouri in the fourth quarter, while it was moot at South Carolina, held on to beat Florida, and played even with Alabama. Overall, it seems Georgia is catching up with the rest of the SEC in terms of being bigger, stronger and faster, and I’ve also been impressed with the out-of-the-box thinking, such as hiring Sherman Armstrong as a speed coach.

Trooper Taylor? Would the Dawgs really stoop that low to get Reuben Foster on board?
- Paul from Grayson

This is in reference to Taylor, who towel-waving Auburn assistant coach who has done a great job recruiting the likes of Foster, the five-star linebacker who at one time was looking at Georgia.

I doubt very much Georgia would hire Taylor, for no other reason than there isn’t room on the staff. I’m sure the Bulldogs will still try to pry away Foster, and reported Wednesday that Richt did call Foster. But while Georgia hasn’t been above doing package deals among players - the Ogletree brothers, Quintavius Harrow along with Isaiah Crowell – they really haven’t done that with coaches.

I have made a rather curious observation of the defensive line strategy the Dawgs employ. I always thought a 3-4 defense used the down linemen to clog the gaps and let the linebackers run free. This year I noticed more and more our big guys running through the gaps and trying to make a play behind the line. Sometimes they did make the play or disrupt the play, but often times the backs ran right past them, and the linebackers were getting blocked. It really is a high-risk high-reward way of playing, you either get a huge sack or tackle-for-loss, or the backs get a huge gain. And when you think about the big play offense this year, we are forced to think that Richt’s philosphy is not so conservative after all. So do you think Richt and the other coaches are becoming bigger risk takers, or is it our players taking the risk to make the play?
- Lane, Athens

That’s a pretty keen observation on the defense. In fact, it’s something that might be worth running by Grantham the next time I see him. In order to quantify it, Georgia has 27 sacks and 81 TFL this year through 13 games, compared to 35 sacks and 100 TFL last year, in 14 games. So if it is higher reward, it’s not necessarily working. Personally, I did notice that Georgia tended to have less bodies around the ball on outside runs this year.

In an overall sense, I don’t know that I’d say Richt and the coaches are letting it fly more than they used to do. It’s just a reaction to what you have on the offensive side, as Mike Bobo said earlier in the year when the spread was being used extensively. But when the receiver injuries started piling up, and the tailbacks got more comfortable, you saw a bit more traditional I-formation.

However, I do think that if Georgia finds itself needing a field goal to beat Nebraska in overtime, this time Richt won’t take a knee.

Just wondering what your way-to-early predictions are for next years team? I know we are losing a lot of guys on defense and possibly Murray too, are we looking at another 6-6 season or more like this year? Thanks!
- JJ, Erie PA

If Murray comes back, or even if he doesn’t, I would predict much better than 6-6. The offense has plenty of weapons, especially considering a healthy Michael Bennett, and an offensive line that will be experienced, if not more talented. (That depends on whether they can get five-star recruit Laremy Tuncil.)

The key is going to be September: Georgia opens at Clemson, probably a preseason top 15 team, then hosts South Carolina (without Lattimore probably, but still with Jadeveon Clowney and Connor Shaw), and two weeks later hosts LSU. As we sit here right now, you could predict Georgia to start 1-3, or to start 4-0.

Is Jarvis a lock to leave? He didn't feel he was NFL ready last year. Do you get the feeling he thinks he is now?
- Grant Wood, via Twitter

Nothing is ever a lock until it’s done, but I’d call this … almost locked-up. His teammates have talked about his senior year the way they did A.J. Green in 2010: As in, it wouldn’t happen. Swann said earlier this year that the team would need to replace Jones’ sacks in 2013; I’m sure he didn’t mean Jones had told him he’s leaving, but Swann just naturally assumed it. When you’re projected to be a top-five pick, you don’t come back for your senior year – particularly your fifth year – unless you don’t like money and lifetime security.

Should we, the fan base, consider the lack of interest in Richt and members of his staff for open positions an indication of their true value, or are they just considered untouchable by outsiders? I mean Auburn didn't show interest, to my knowledge, and hired Gus whose only successful season at this level came in a year where his offensive philosophy was pretty much "Do something, Cam." and has a wife that may be a nut job and liability. I really enjoyed the championship game and saw progress from a coaching standpoint in that we competed until the end, yet still find myself in a vulnerable position now that the season is over. Please, talk me off the ledge or give me a nudge. Perpetual mediocrity with flashes of greatness is wearing on me.
- Keith, Athens

Well, I might have to quibble the premise in your final sentence. What do you consider mediocrity? Richt has won 76 percent of his games over 12 years. The last two years they were in the SEC championship game. The year before 6-7, they were 8-5, and the years before that they won 10, 11, nine, 10, 10, 11 and 13 games.

So the evidence would indicate that it’s been perpetual success with one flash of mediocrity. The only quibble that the fan base can have is the inability to win the big one. That I understand. But it doesn’t mean that keeping Richt around won’t get you there. It reminds me of the debate at my alma mater, Maryland, over whether Gary Williams would ever turn his consistency (always making the NCAA tournament) into a Final Four. Many assumed he couldn’t, until he did. Not saying I believe Richt will, but … anyway.

As for the coaches, Bobo is going to be in consideration for some smaller jobs. He was mentioned this week for Southern Miss. And trust me, if Kirby Smart does get a head coaching job, he’s going to call Bobo. Grantham might get a look at a similar level, or by an NFL team for a defensive coordinator position. You are correct that other program’s coaches are the ones getting the major looks, and that usually comes with BCS-level bids. That’s why Smart gets mentioned so much, why Kentucky hired Mark Stoops from Florida State, and why Malzahn (who has a track record besides 2010) got the Auburn job.

1-Do you see any chance that Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree, and Kwame Geathers stay? I don't see how the first two could improve their stock, but maybe you have some insight.

2-If we sign Laremy Tunsil, does he get an opportunity to start? Obviously, the coaches will say everyone has a chance to compete, but does he have a real shot at starting on the line next year with the entire line returning.

3-When 2014 starts and we see the plus-one model, how would this have played out this year? I'm guessing UGA would be left out with Florida and Oregon getting the 3rd and 4th spots. Does Slive ever consider that the SEC championship may hurt his league or brand in that area, or does he wait for that to happen to make a change with all the success the SEC championship game has seen in the past. I did read that this year's SEC championship was the most watched game this season.
- Rusty, San Jose, CA originally from Sowega

1-Jones we have discussed. Ogletree sure seems likely to go when you consider he’s almost a certain first-round pick. The only question is whether Grantham convinces him that coming back to try to become a top-five pick is the way to go. But the other problem for Ogletree is that the next time he gets popped for a drug suspension, he’s out for a season. As for Geathers, many expect him to go because of his family’s track record of leaving early, but the other side is that Geathers is one of the few defensive players last year (along with Jarvis Jones) who didn’t seriously consider leaving.

2-Tunsil, the five-star recruit from Florida, will have every chance to start at one of the tackle spots if he signs with Georgia. It’s the John Theus situation a year later: One of the spots is his as long as he performs well in the preseason. Richt wouldn’t guarantee that Kenarious Gates would be the left tackle again in 2013, so Gates could move back to guard.

3-Oh, I’m pretty sure the SEC championship isn’t going anywhere. It’s a huge moneymaker, and so far it hasn’t harmed the conference’s ability to get its teams in the national title game. The only possible drawback could come in the playoff, if it means the loser is out of the four-team playoff, and is not replaced by a second SEC team that didn’t win its division. But this year Florida would have almost certainly slid in there.

In fact, let’s tackle that right now …

Had this been 2014, do you think Georgia would have been left out of a 4-team playoff in favor of Oregon, Florida and Notre Dame -- three teams who didn't play last Saturday? Is it possible that picking the top four teams will become more difficult and hotly debated than just deciding on the top two?
- Brandon, Charlotte, NC

Absolutely, it will be more hotly-debated, which is why the clamor for an eight-team playoff will be the immediate result. Actually, the clamor is already there. I would favor it, and I don’t think four really solves the problem. But as avowed playoff proponent, I’ll go on record saying that eight would be fine with me, and I would clamor no more after that.

But anyway … Yes, if the 2014 rules had been in effect now, I’m pretty sure Florida would have replaced Georgia as the fourth team in the playoff, along with Alabama, Notre Dame and Oregon. It may not necessarily have been fair, because Georgia beat Florida and didn’t have to face Alabama. But the perception would have been that the Bulldogs had their shot, and it’s important that the Gators have not played the Crimson Tide this year. Then again, Kansas State would have been a candidate as well, and there would have been a push for Stanford over Oregon.

If there were a proper eight-team playoff, anybody got a problem with this bracket?

1. Notre Dame (12-0) vs. 8. LSU (10-2) 2. Alabama (12-1) vs. 7. Kansas State (11-1) 3. Oregon (11-1) vs. 6. Georgia (11-2) 4. Florida (11-1) vs. 5. Stanford (11-2)

(I really couldn’t decide between LSU and Texas A&M, but the BCS standings said LSU, so there.)

So, as great as the college football regular season is, when you look at that eight-team bracket, how excited would you be to watch those quarterfinals – much less the semis and final?

I know this is trivial, but do you have any idea why Coach Richt removed all the Gatorade bottles from the table at the beginning of his post-game press conference on Saturday night? Whatever the reason, it was one of the funniest things I've ever seen him do.
- Al Dawkins, Lincolnton, GA

As someone who last week tweeted out a picture of Richt’s hot chocolate cup, I am in no position to call this trivial. However I’m also in no position to answer this question, as I wasn’t at the press conference. (Many of us weren't, as we were inside the Georgia locker room interviewing players.) I do know that Richt likes his Gatorade, and don’t know of any contractual sponshorship issue.

Regarding Chuck Oliver vs. Mark Richt: From someone who is in the media, what's your take? Legit question? Right time to ask?
- Chuck Roberts

Chuck Oliver came back on Monday and apologized, calling it “horrible timing.” So I guess there’s not much more to add to that.

What is interesting to me is that Richt, as detached and above-the-fray as he may seem, seems pretty aware of who his critics are. Oliver has been a notable one, and I have to wonder if someone else hadn’t asked the question if Richt would have responded the same way. Who knows, maybe he would have, given the emotions of the moment, but Richt’s comeback (“Is that what you’re saying, or everybody else?”) made me wonder.

It reminded me of a couple years ago when Richt walked off a radio interview in Macon with Bill Shanks, another frequent Richt critic, when Shanks wasn’t really asking very tough questions. Overall, Richt is pretty generous with his time and cooperative with the media, but he also has his moments where he basically says, “Yeah, I don’t need this …”

Follow Seth Emerson at @sethemerson.

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