Bulldogs Beat

Mailbag: Georgia and the big games

ATHENS – I will admit that when I opened the floor for the mailbag, to being slightly surprised that I didn’t get asked the following question:

Why do you hate Georgia? Because there’s obviously no other explanation for voting Georgia 18th in your AP ballot, when the Bulldogs came in at No. 13 in the actual poll.

Well, a few people did ask me about it earlier in the week. And they didn't so much ask as demand my head on a stick. A very sharp stick.

Anyway, here was my reasoning, in case anybody wanted to know: Since I’ve had an AP vote, I’ve used body of work (quality wins, bad losses, strength of schedule) as my main criteria, just like the NCAA basketball selection committee. Right now, Georgia is 5-1, but the wins have come against teams with a combined record of 10-21. None has a winning record. The one loss was a blowout. In my considered opinion, that’s not the resume of a top 15 team.

But win in two weeks in Jacksonville, and I will whole-heartedly promise to put Georgia back in the top 10.

So there.

In the meantime, I once again promise that when I vote each week I will do so in an objective manner, detached from my role as a Georgia beat writer, obligated to look at total body of work. Every now and then that means that something will come out of my keyboard that Georgia fans don’t like, but hopefully that means you can trust it’s my real opinion, and real analysis, and not something coming from red-colored glasses.

That seems like a good segue into the mailbag. So let’s go:

1-Given some of the new provisions in Coach Richt´s contract extension this off-season, including a significantly reduced buyout after the 2013 season, what would you say is the minimum Richt needs to do for the next year-and-a-half (on and off the field) to still be the head man come kickoff 2014? And do you see any plausible scenario where he isn´t around for kickoff 2013?

- Joey, Argentina

The only plausible scenario for Richt not being the coach in 2013 is that he decides on his own to talk away. I know the South Carolina loss was a tough pill to take, and a loss to Florida would be too. But you’re still looking at a team that, at minimum it seems, is headed for a second straight 10-win season. The administration at Georgia would not have given Richt the extension it did, and keep the hefty buyout in place for this year, if it expected a bare minimum from this year. Last year was the hot seat year. This year is not.

But what about 2014? I’d say let’s get through this year before we project. Greg McGarity said several times after last season that he wants Richt to be the coach for the foreseeable future, and they spent a great deal of time hammering out that contract. The buyout, by the way, would still be $2.4 million after the 2014 season. I don’t point that out because of the money – Georgia has plenty in reserve and would eat it if it felt it had to. But I think it points to McGarity being very confident when that deal was signed that he wouldn’t have to buy Richt out anytime soon.

I don’t think one bad game (even one very bad game) erases that.

First off, please tell your boss that mandatory vacation during football season isn’t the best course of action regardless of bye week or no bye week.especially for us Georgia football hungry readers out here in the wastelands of Oklahoma! I hate staring at 90% of the articles on ESPN that are all “insider” crap, and The Telegraph is my main source of good UGA football news! So welcome back! I have been reading a lot of reports about Georgia not being able to win when it matters. When faced with a quality team, reporters and writers both agree Georgia doesn’t have what it takes to win in those crucial situations. Right now we are already being counted out in the Florida game. And with the glaring loss to South Carolina, the Biggest Game of the Year, the game that everyone who calls themselves a Georgia fan circled in red months ago, is a testament to that theory. Sadly, as a fan, I am starting to believe them. So, I set here scratching my head, wondering that as much as Georgia pours in to our football program, why can’t we win those big games?

- Ray Bailey, Fort Sill, Okla.

Thanks so much for the kind words! I didn’t like the week off, but I had to take it, so the bye week way to mitigate the damage.

I would quibble a bit with the assertion that we all agree Georgia can’t win in crucial spots, and people are writing off the Florida game. Now, based on current evidence it is fair to say the Bulldogs just aren’t a great team, and it’s fair to call them underdogs to the Gators.

Does Georgia have a big-game mental block? Personally, I didn’t sense it the week leading up to the South Carolina game, which is why I changed my pick. (Silly me.) The Bulldogs were in a bunker mentality, and you could tell it was a different week. But it didn’t work. Will Friend, who I think overall has done a splendid job with the offensive line, decided to limit all but one of his players from speaking to the media that week. But it didn’t help block Jadeveon Clowney and company. Who can say anything would’ve helped?

Based on being around the program, I sometimes do wonder if the even-keel approach set forth by Richt, and reflected through guys like Aaron Murray and Jarvis Jones, who off the field are not fiery guys, sometimes ratchets the intensity down. But Richt doesn’t stop his assistants from lighting emotional fires, and Todd Grantham and Friend are very fiery. So are a bunch of players, most notably Shawn Williams.

The only way now for the Bulldogs to change the perception nationally and around the SEC is to go out and beat the Gators. I still think Georgia has more overall talent, especially on defense, and has the edge at quarterback. These teams aren’t THAT much different from last year, when Georgia won, with Florida’s change of quarterback and offense the main difference.

Beat Florida, and Georgia will go a long way toward fixing the problem. Lose, and it sticks around for awhile.

Saturday's embarrassment got me thinking: Have we allowed ourselves to have unrealistic expectations season after season, while our team has actually lacked the talent to win big games? Otherwise, I see a team that consistently lacks fire, and this strikes me as a top-down problem. Richt's ability to find "good news" in a communal embarrassment is par for the course, and indicative of a cultural problem. At what point do we burn it down and start over on the coaching staff? When is a grade of "Consistently Fails to Meet Expectations, but Still Does Well Enough" not good enough anymore?

- Nick, a Dawg Fan in DC

I was also struck by Richt’s comments, both after the game and the next day, when he disagreed with the premise his team was flat. As I wrote in a column for Tuesday’s papers, perhaps Richt was right, his team just got out-physicaled and there was no use in ripping into his team just for public consumption. But clearly it was not what the fans wanted to hear.

It’s important for people to remember, though, that what Richt and the coaches are saying publicly often is different from what they say privately. Grantham, in particular, is much more fiery behind the scenes, especially in calling out his own players. In his public comments, Grantham is almost always positive.

Look, here’s what happened at South Carolina: The Georgia defense got skunked in the first quarter, and the offense couldn’t do anything because it couldn’t block. And those two units are coached by Grantham and Friend, two of the most fiery assistants on the staff. I’m not sure emotion was the problem there.

Going into the season, the O-line was definitely a big question mark and I think that played itself out against South Carolina. It didn’t seem that they made many adjustments with additional TEs or anything to help out. I think the bigger surprise has been how the D-line has seemed rather ineffective against formidable opponents. They have been unable to generate a decent pass rush, unless an extra guy is coming and that hasn’t been effective either. On top of that, it seems that Jarvis has one move to the QB and that is just pure speed, we rarely see a spin, swim move, etc. (didn’t with Justin Houston either). It seems like there is no development on the D-line. What are your thoughts?

- David, Grayson

That’s an interesting observation on Jarvis Jones and Justin Houston, one I haven’t made, so I’d have to defer to you. I would argue though that it didn’t really hurt in either case, as the sack and quarterback pressure stats show. (Houston is successful so far in the NFL too.)

I wrote about the pass-rush problems in today’s paper, and talked for awhile with the particulars about it. You could’ve knocked me silly before the season by telling me Abry Jones and Cornelius Washington would have combined for half a sack at this point.

One thing Rodney Garner said he was going to do was given Garrison Smith more paying time, somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-20 more snaps a game, perhaps more. The hope is that it would help Jones, Washington and John Jenkins stay a bit more fresh. Otherwise, Grantham told me he thinks the pass-rush game will be better the rest of the season, although he wouldn’t really elaborate on why he feels that way, or what they’ve done. I’m sure they’re making some minor mechanical tweaks, but mainly they’re just hoping for a return to form.

Hey Seth - If I can go ahead and look to next month and basketball season, what kind of team are we looking at fielding this year? I know Coach Fox was excited about having more depth in his line-up, but does he have enough talent around KCP to realistically hope for a return to one of the postseason tourneys? Thanks!

- Mark Struedel, Raleigh, N.C.

Yes, it actually is almost basketball season. And in case you missed it, Georgia got two – two! – votes in the preseason USA Today coaches poll. The team it will face on Nov. 19 in Brooklyn came in at No. 1: Indiana.

My inclination is the Bulldogs should be good enough to get to the NIT, although I thought that last year was miserably wrong. The key will be the frontcourt, and whether anyone can develop into a consistent rebounder and low-post threat. Caldwell-Pope and the freshmen provide hope for perimeter scoring and a good transition game, but you can’t win just on that. So it’ll be up to Donte Williams and Marcus Thornton to step it up a bit this year, or one of the second-year players to emerge. (Nemanja Djurisic, the sophomore, is a good player but he’s more of a tweener, not necessarily a power forward type.)

Now, what's happened with Richard Samuel? I noticed one game that Brandon Harton plays instead of Samuel then against USC when we need a big blocking back he's still not in there. I know that he doesn't compare with Gurshall but I would have thought he would at least get some mop up duty. Any thoughts?

- Tim Thompson, Cartersville

I’m not shocked that Samuel is out of the tailback rotation – no coach will say so publicly, but with Malcome being a sophomore and Samuel a senior, if only one of them is to get carries, they’ll defer to the guy they need to keep happy for future years. Fullback is a bigger mystery. But the coaches really love what Merritt Hall has done there, especially in his blocking. Samuel is still officially the backup fullback with Quayvon Hicks, but Hicks is the blocking fullback on goal-line. Sadly for Samuel, this is just a case of a guy being out of the mix.

So if Florida beats SC this week, and then the Dawgs beat Florida next week... can the Dawgs overcome the poor showing in Columbia and get consideration as a top 5 team again?

- Eddie Bruce, Dalton

Eventually, yes, but I doubt the Bulldogs would leap back into the top five immediately. Under that scenario, Georgia would almost certainly get back into the top 10, and then just have to keep winning and hoping for the teams ahead of them to fall. The Bulldogs need the memory of that South Carolina game to fade further into the distance.

I have read different accounts of Georgia’s record against ranked teams and ranked SEC teams since 2008, or a similar timeframe. Can you give an accurate account and provide analysis on the record?

- Sundawg

Since the start of the 2008 season, Georgia is 6-14 vs. ranked teams. The average rank of teams Georgia defeated was 17.8, at the time of the game. (Only one was in the top 10: Georgia Tech, which was No. 7 in 2009). The average rank of teams Georgia has lost to is 8.4. (Seven of them were ranked in the top 10, and only then-No. 24 South Carolina in 2010 was outside the top 20.)

Since the SEC changed the rule this summer about allowing the band to be amplified in the stadium, I've seen several schools take advantage of this. South Carolina did this two weeks ago and LSU had the band mic'ed up this past Saturday night. Any news on when this is going to happen in Athens?

- Jesse Fortson, Byron

Quite honestly, I don’t know if Georgia has done this yet. The next home game isn’t until Nov. 3. If any Redcoat Band members are out there, or anybody else with knowledge, feel free to chime in. Sorry I can’t help.

1- Who's the long-term answer at LT? Near-term?

2- How is turnover at head coach at Auburn and Tennessee affecting recruiting?

3- Is next year our year?

- Lucas Puente, East Palo Alto, Cal.

1-It was interesting this week that Richt was so adamant that Kenarious Gates was the left tackle for the rest of this season, but so cagey on next year, when Gates will be a senior. It’s very possible he’s holding that spot open for Laremy Tunsil, if the five-star recruit from Florida signs with Georgia. Trenton Brown, a junior college prospect who has committed to Georgia, could also be a candidate. Or they could just shift John Theus from right tackle.

2-There hasn’t actually been any turnover at Auburn or Tennessee yet, and I’m not sure there will be after this year. So it hasn’t been affected at all yet. But if something does happen at either place I’m sure a few of their targets will be getting vulture by Georgia. Of course, that might be mitigated by when a change happens, and whether the replacement can hold on to recruits. The other thing is Georgia is already well on its way to a full class, and Richt and company aren’t the type to throw aside a current commitment for someone they like better.

3-Offensively, it might be, assuming Murray returns for his senior year. The question will be defense, assuming Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree don’t return. The schedule will also be much harder.

Where is Justin Scott-Wesley? Seems like they need help with returns. Do they have a chuck it deep play?

- Joe Ryan, Torrance, Cal.

As far as returns, it really is a mystery what’s going on there. You’d think Scott-Wesley would be a natural there, and I’m sure they auditioned him in practice, so they must have just not seen what they wanted. Kick return has actually been pretty solid, but the current punt return plan – Rhett McGowan out to fair catch – seems open to some tweaking.

As for offense, Scott-Wesley just isn’t in the rotation at this point. It’s easy to sit here and say he should be because he’s fast, but it’s more than that, and the coaches apparently haven’t seen enough from him yet, whether it’s route-running, catching or whatever. For what it’s worth, the receiver position has been excellent thus far.

SOMETHING STINKS IN THE DAWG HOUSE. WHAT IS IT SETH? I've watched the dogs, followed the dogs, and went to dawg games for years. I know young men. I know when they are happy and sad. I see the "don't really want to be here look in these dogs eyes". What is wrong in dawg nation that is causing these young players not having fun? Can you put a finger on the "STINK"?

- Thanks, Johnnyvet

The stink? My compliments on finding a new way to ask this question. Honestly, we could sit here all day and waste our breath over a team’s mindset, how it’s feeling, whether Mark Richt is setting cats on fire as pregame motivation, and on and on. The bottom line is we can’t jump into the brain’s of these kids. Ultimately, it comes down to talent and Xs and Os, or at least those are the most important factors. I thought the team was in a good frame of mind going into Columbia, and then thwack. And I think it’ll be in a good frame of mind going into Jacksonville too. I expect a closer game then.

(By the way, Georgia plays at Kentucky on Saturday. And look how little we’ve talked about that game. In fact, that was the first time.)

Branden Smith: Another 5-star recruit wasted his career away in the wrong position. I think he's by far our most explosive player in space. Why do you think he has not played more of a role on offense in his career? I know he's a high risk high reward guy as a kick returner, but as a WR in the screen or deep ball passing game he could be a game changer. Given a focus on offense, the fumble issue probably would have fixed itself by end of year one.

I've always felt he was under sized and too light to play D. I believe his skill set and build is more in the mold of a Desean Jackson of the Philadelphia Eagles. It seems like the strength program has not benefited him too much either.

- John B, Smyrna

Smith is certainly a bit undersized for the Todd Grantham defense. He’s listed at 5-foot-11 (emphasis on listed), and if you notice since he got here Grantham has tended to pursue defensive backs who were 6-foot or taller, and had some bulk.

So what about Smith on offense? I was on board last year with the idea they needed to use him a bunch more. Instead, Brandon Boykin got a lot of the snaps they would have used on Smith, and to be fair, Boykin did quite well. This year, I’m not sure you can really criticize Georgia for not using Smith on offense – the receivers, as stated above, have been excellent. And I’m pretty sure Smith wouldn’t have made a difference in Columbia.

It’s not like Smith isn’t playing much on defense. But as far as becoming a breakout star, it’s very possible that Smith is simply a casualty of a change in defensive coordinators. But he does have six more games, at least, to finish his career on a high note.

I would like to know why we put so much emphasis on 4 or 5-star players out of high school but we have nothing to show for it. We have always been in the top 10 as far as recruiting classes but have no rewards. I believe that these 4 or 5 star players care more about themselves than they do the team. Why is emphasis not put on players that want to play for Georgia. Other successful programs get players that want to be a part of the team! Can anyone research this to see if this is advantage to us, or should our coaches be looking for players that want to play for Georgia? Coach Richt was very successful early in his carrier at Georgia when we were not getting those top players.

- Chuck Milam

Actually, Georgia got a number of big-time recruits when Richt first got here. And he inherited a bunch from Jim Donnan. And just because you’re a five-star guy doesn’t mean you don’t want to be at Georgia; Ray Drew was one and he helped recruit much of the Dream Team. I don’t want to be impolite, but I think you’re barking up the wrong tree here. (Hate cliché’s. But it’s been a busy day, and that’s the way the cookie crumbles.)

I don't understand why some in the media claim Georgia's loss to South Carolina has eliminated them from a chance to play in the national championship game. If Georgia wins out (unlikely, but possible), it's almost guaranteed that they will play in the national championship game. Oregon is the only team in the nation outside of the SEC with a realistic chance of finishing undefeated. West Virginia already lost, Notre Dame is going to lose at least once, and Kansas State will probably lose to someone. Because you are part of the media, maybe you can explain.

- Mark Gelbart, Augusta

As a media member, I can attest that we often fall prey to the instant reaction, rather than taking the long view. I’m sure if you went back to 2007 you’d find widespread feelings each time LSU lost that it was out of the national title picture. Or Florida the next year when it lost to Ole Miss, but went on to win the BCS championship. (And the Gators did so by beating Oklahoma, which lost to Texas in Week 6 by 10 points, but also recovered.)

The problem for Georgia, however, is that it will be hard in the minds of many voters to overcome its showing at South Carolina, and its schedule. Still, I would agree that if Georgia wins out, including the SEC championship game, there’s no way it’s not going to be in Miami. Most media members are just looking at that performance in Columbia and not expecting Georgia to be able to win out. Even Bulldog fans have to agree that’s not an unfair sentiment.

But if Florida can knock off South Carolina, then the door to winning the division is back open, and Georgia can cancel out the memory of the Debacle in Columbia by beating the Gators.