Thursday, October 29, 2009

Georgia vs. Florida: Preview

Despite Florida's dominance of the series over the past couple of decades, the annual border war between the Gators and the Dawgs remains one of the best rivalries in college football.

The two squads enter the contest in vastly different situations. The Bulldogs, already in the throes of a disappointing season, are coming off a much-needed bye week after putting together their most complete game of the season, albeit against a very weak Vanderbilt team. Meanwhile, the Gators come in as perhaps the most embattled #1 ranked undefeated team we've seen in quite some time.

Florida struggled mightily during the past two weeks against a couple of mediocre teams in Arkansas and Mississippi State. While the defense remains outstanding (they are "the superb defense" in the SEC in both scoring and total defense), the offense has been largely ineffective, and has been turning the ball over like mad.

QB Tim Tebow is obviously the Alpha and the Omega of the Gator offense. Although still one of the best players in all of college football and on the verge of setting the SEC's all-time rushing TD record, the phenomenal senior has seen his production dip since his Heisman-winning sophomore campaign. ESPN correspondents and sportscasters around the country are on suicide watch as we speak. He's already equaled his interception total from last year in fewer than half the pass attempts, and has seen his passer rating drop by more than 20 pts from his previous two seasons. The culmination of this, if there can be a "culmination" half-way through the season, came last week against the MSU Bulldogs, when he threw for just 127 yds w/ 0 TDs and 2 INTs. All that being said, it would be fool-hearty to even suggest that he's no longer capable of putting the team on his shoulders the rest of the way.

The Tim Tebow Collectible Figurine

For all the disgruntlement with the UF offense, the Gators still lead the SEC in total offense, due predominately to the potent rushing attack. While Tebow has been keeping the ball on the read-option a bit more than in the past, Florida still spreads the wealth on the ground as well as ever. Speed is the name of the game with tailbacks Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps. Both are in the 5'9, 180 lbs. range, and both can take it the distance at any time. They'll also utilize USC transfer Emmanuel Moody as a more traditional running back (6', 210lbs). Demps, Rainey, and Moody are averaging an obnoxious 7.9, 6.9, and 8.4 ypc respectively.

The passing game has been a bit less explosive this year for the Gators. With WRs Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy gone to the NFL, Florida has been unable to find a consistent deep threat to replace them and loosen up defenses. Riley Cooper has been fine, but far from dominant. TE Aaron Hernandez, who is also used on some inside shovel passes, is outstanding at his position, but averages just 11.9 yards per catch. David Nelson just hasn't improved upon a nice junior year, and Deonte Thompson, while considered a deep threat, seems to disappear during games.

The Gator offensive line, as always, is big and athletic. They've done a marvelous job controlling things in the running game, but have come under fire of late in their pass protection. Led by the Pouncey brothers in the middle (two of those players who seem to have been at Florida for 8 years already, but still only juniors), and the mammoth Carl Johnson at left tackle, they are very experienced, and know coach Urban Meyer's system to a tee.

For Georgia defensively, it's sadly become a running joke that the Georgia D is a career day waiting to happen for opposing QBs. Three of the five SEC QBs the Dawgs have faced this year have had their best days against Georgia. With the Gators out of sync in the passing game lately, the Bulldogs absolutely cannot afford to allow them to dink and dunk their way down the field all day. Pressure is always a key, but the Dawgs will need to play more press coverage than they have in the past. Tebow has not thrown the deep ball particularly well this season, so if Georgia takes away the underneath stuff and gets beat deep, so be it. The Florida QB is as good as there's ever been at picking up 3rd and 4th and less than 2 yds, so forcing 3rd and 4+ yds will be a must. Turnovers were also the main reason why both Arkansas and Miss. St. were able to make things close, so the Dawgs will need to be on the lookout for errant passes and loose balls (mind out of the gutter, folks), and not miss takeaway opportunities.

The Gator defense led the SEC in scoring defense last season, and is even better in 2009. They're able to get pressure off the edges with DEs Jermaine Cunningham and Carlos Dunlap, and will rotate DTs in and out with no drop-off.

LB Brandon Spikes is an All-American, and while he's been hobbled the past couple of weeks, he's expected to be back at full-speed this Saturday. While there's no single linebacker that just racks up tackles, they can all run and defend the underneath passing game as well as any corps in the country.

As good as Florida's front seven is, what makes the defense so exceptional is really the secondary. CBs Joe Haden and Janoris Jenkins represent the best cornerback tandem in the country. They're both decently sized at 5'11, 190lbs, but their quickness, hips, and ball awareness are second to none. Florida is able to play man coverage whenever they choose, which is a huge advantage for the linebackers and safeties to play the running game and short underneath passes. The Gators will also leave S Will Hill or Major Wright about as deep as you will see, often positioning one 15+ yds down field, making it difficult for opposing offenses to throw deep.

For Georgia offensively, just get #8 the damn ball. You can bet Florida will be doing what they can to limit that, but AJ Green is so good that it often doesn't matter. Florida is 12th in the nation in rushing defense, and the Bulldogs haven't run the ball with any consistency anyway (103rd in the nation), so while you still have to try to run the ball a bit, it would be foolish to expect to have success on the ground. The Dawgs have done a nice job protecting Joe Cox in the pocket (10th in the nation in sacks allowed, w/ just 6), so they'll need to take their chances through the air. This will be especially true when looking at 3rd and longs, which Georgia often finds itself in. No team this year has really had any sustained 70-80 yd drives against Florida, so the Dawgs' best shot will be hooking up for some big plays, and AJ Green has shown that he can make plays that basically no other receiver can.

Overall, it would be silly for me to sit here and actually predict that Georgia will win. That being said, a lot of things have set up nicely for the Dawgs to potentially pull off the upset.

First, the bye week is no joke. In the UF-UGA series, the last 8 times one team had a bye when the other didn't, the team with the bye is 8-0 (UGA is 2-0, UF is 6-0). Meanwhile, the Gators were just involved in two slug-fests, with last week's being a late game on the road. The rest and the added time to prepare gives the Dawgs a decided edge.

Second, Florida has been struggling, at least offensively. Since Georgia will most likely have trouble putting together long scoring drives, turnovers and short fields will be a must if the Bulldogs are to have any shot. Florida has obliged opposing teams in this regard lately, so hopefully that will continue.

Last, there really should be a "nothing to lose" attitude for Georgia. Typically, this game goes a long way toward determining Georgia's fate in the SEC East. This year, though, they lost the ability to control their own destiny with the loss to Tennessee. Where Georgia often shows signs of being tight and even nervous, this year they can go in knowing that a loss doesn't really have an effect on their SEC championship hopes. Just let it all hang out and see what happens.

Again, a win by the Dawgs would be a long shot, but ruining the Gators' season would sure take some of the sting out of an otherwise disappointing year. I think that if Georgia gets a few breaks and makes a few big plays, they could pull this one out on the order of, say, 23-20. Here's hoping...

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Can the Dawgs "Man Up" Against 'Dores?

Forget about a supposed dip in talent level. Forget about being out-schemed. When the Bulldogs take the field in Nashville against the Vanderbilt Commodores, many a Georgia fan would simply like to see them just be plum nasty (until the whistle blows, that is).

I like kickoff returns for TDs and 50 yd bombs through the air as much as the next out-of-the-arena guy, but this Saturday, I'd most like to see the Dawgs show just a modicum of the old junkyard dog, "we're better than you" attitude, if even for only a few hours. It's "just" Vanderbilt (granted, UGA has hardly dominated the 'Dores recently, losing once and escaping by the skin of its teeth a couple of other times). A strong performance, especially on the lines of scrimmage, is not going to erase the shortcomings this team has, nor will it put out of mind the embarrassing loss to UT last week. But, for me at least, it would offer a bit of escapism in a thus far disappointing season.

Look, if you're half as fanatically rabid about Georgia football as I, you've got to realize that we start counting down the days to football season the day after the G-Day game. Cliched though it most certainly is, the players are taking the rest of the season one game at a time. It's a good idea to do that as a fan, too. So, when the Dawgs and 'Dores tee it up at 12:21 EST, let's see some real passion and pride, but more importantly, let's see that mean, nasty attitude that the better Georgia teams over the past half-century have displayed. Just for this afternoon, regardless of the opponent. Then we can go back to deciding who should have a job next year.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Excogitations on Where Georgia is, Where it's Going

Georgia is just not very good right now. There are certainly plenty of worse teams out there, but I don't think anybody would suggest that the 2009 version of the Bulldogs measures up to what we as fans are used to thus far, nor what we expect.

To quickly hash out some basic, yet telling statistics, the Dawgs are just 9-6 going back to the 2008 Alabama game (a somewhat random place to begin, but nonetheless indicative). Out of those 15 games, Georgia has given up 37 or more points 8 times. The offense has been a bit better, but has still failed to score more than 20 points 5 times during that stretch.

These numbers represent what can only be described as an overall lack of preparedness on the part of the offense and/or defense in a given game, but it goes deeper than that.

Offensively, Joe Cox has had his problems, but right now, way too much is being put on his (weakened) shoulder. Primarily, the complete lack of a running game, where the Bulldogs rank 104th in the nation (ahead of only some downright terrible teams, and some pass-happy offenses like Bowling Green, Hawaii, and Texas Tech), has led to numerous 3rd and long situations. In the passing game itself, outside of AJ Green, there is only one WR/TE with any meaningful playing experience whatsoever.

On defense, well, what more can be said? I've often maintained that the unit coached by Willie Martinez has been put in far too many bad spots by the offense and special teams. Regardless, Georgia's best defensive efforts have come against only the most offensively inept teams around. For example, what looked to be a nice job against LSU was thrown into sharp relief when the Tigers managed just 3 points at home against Florida, where they managed just 162 yards of offense. The run defense has been OK for the most part, but the lack of a consistent pass rush and a secondary reminiscent of the old vibrating electronic football games has been cause for concern for quite some time.

Running to Stand Still

Beyond coaching, there seem to be precious few "difference makers" on either side of the ball, and some downright poor play as well. Obviously, AJ Green is one of the best WRs in the country. Beyond him, there's not a single player with any experience that would seem to have that "it" factor. Some true freshmen and redshirt freshment may yet become stars, but by and large, injuries and simply "missing" on some recruits has left Georgia in a hole.

Likewise on defense. Where there's experience, there's little talent/playmaking ability, and where there is talent, there is little experience. Georgia's best CBs would seem to be a true sophomore and a true freshmen at these point as far as talent goes. Then there's the Bryan Evans/Baccari Rambo situation at safety. Rambo has already shown a penchant for making plays (2 int's in limited time thus far), but is a reshirt freshman. Senior Bryan Evans, supposedly one of the fastest players on the team, has just never figured it out, either as a corner or a safety.

As far as personnel goes, there's some reason for optimism. As I mentioned, many of Georgia's best players on both sides of the ball are freshmen and sophomores, and others, such as WRs Marlon Brown and Rantavious Wootentheballcarrier may be good ones.

So, what happens going forward?

First, it would make little sense to start handing various coaches their walking papers in the middle of the season. Georgia is not as bad as its performance against Tennessee might indicate. While there's likely no SEC East crown in store for the Dawgs this season, a 9-4 or 8-5 year is still well within the realm of possibility (which is not to say that that's what I'm predicting). At year's end, though, Richt is going to have some tough decisions to make.

There are some questions that need asking.

"Which coaches have done as well as anyone could expect given what they had to work with?"

"Which areas of our team have either declined or been mired in mediocrity over the past few years?"

Lastly, and this is a dangerous question, because you never want to settle for being average, but "Is this just one of those years?"

The bottom line is, nothing lasts forever. Perhaps the various coaching techniques and types of players recruited just don't work as well as they used to. Perhaps the Dawgs just need some new voices and attitudes around the practice field, in the gym, etc.

Whatever the case, I implore you to remember the success Georgia has enjoyed up until this season under Mark Richt. High expectations usually come as a result of great success in previous years.

In the short term, I believe the Dawgs will work their tails off to win as many games as possible this year, but the coaches will need to take a good look at which younger players they can build next year's team around.

At season's end, Richt may be forced to come to grips with the fact that friendships, loyalties, and trust are not always in the best interests of a major college football program.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Dawgs' Reputation for Undisciplined Play Home to Roost?

It's no secret that, particularly over the past few years, Georgia has been one of the most penalized teams in the country. Although I don't suspect officiating crews actually concern themselves with exactly where Georgia ranks consistently, there's little doubt that they are aware of Georgia's penchant for committing the odd late hit, or excessive celebration.

I'm not going to sit here and complain that the "celebration" penalty against LSU cost Georgia the game, nor will I say that the "illegal hit" by Reshad Jones against OSU cost them that game. I can tell you that what those penalties did do was seal Georgia's fate in those games. Neither was a legitimate penalty.

Neither am I going to tell you that there is a conspiracy against Georgia. There's not. Officials screw up sometimes because they're still human beings. That doesn't make the atrocious penalties called against the Bulldogs any easier to stomach for fans, but c'est la vie.

Going back a few years, Georgia has had many a text-book personal foul or celebration (see the GA-FL game in '07) penalty called against them. Add that to the over-abundance of in-game penalties such as offsides, false starts, etc, and the Bulldogs had become known as a team that did not follow the rules, so to speak. Because the refs are human beings, no matter how hard they might try to take each game as it comes regardless of who's playing, they're going to drop hankie on Georgia any time they're on the fence about a call. It's a predisposition borne of Georgia's recent past.

Penalties breed penalties, and however unfair it may be, Georgia made its own bed. It's imperative that the Dawgs play a cleaner brand of football starting right now, not just for the disadvantages it causes directly, but also to rid themselves of the stigma with which they seem to have been branded.

Monday, October 5, 2009

What Georgia Is, And What Georgia Is Not

Almost halfway through the 2009 season, it's relatively safe to identify trends and arrive at certain conclusions. Here are a few...

Georgia is a pretty good team that cannot overcome opponents and refs alike. You always hear "Great teams overcome bad calls and bad situations." Exactly. Georgia is not a great team. The bogus unsportsmanlike penalty called after scoring the go-ahead TD Saturday against LSU is a microcosm. A great team would have still stopped LSU around the 35 yd line on the handicapped kickoff, and would have slowed down LSU enough to at least force them to try a desperation 60 yd field goal as time expired.

Georgia's offensive line is a dichotomy insofar as its pass-blocking is above average, and its run-blocking is below average. Without hashing out the x's and o's, the skills and techniques for each varies quite a bit. You've also got to credit some of the D-Lines the Dawgs have faced for making things difficult in the running game, no doubt. Nonetheless, Georgia's inability to consistently create space to run the ball is probably the number one reason for the offense's inconsistent play. Very few offenses are going to have many sustained drives when they're looking at 2nd and 10's and 3rd and 9's all day long. (Note: this is not intended to grand absolution to other players or coaches)

By and large, Georgia is most talented where they are least experienced. There are a few exceptions (Rennie Curran is both talented and experienced, for example), but you see it all over. CB Brandon Boykin, Georgia's best corner right now, made a great interception, and then foolishly tried to run it out of the end zone amidst traffic. That's something he probably doesn't do, except that he's only started a few games in his career, and still has that mentality that he has to score a TD every time he has the ball.

Finally, Joe Cox is Joe Cox. A few bad balls notwithstanding (missing AJ Green for what was a sure TD early on was flat-out awful), he's more than serviceable when he's got options down field. It's difficult for any QB to consistently pick up 3rd and longs, but more so for one that does not have a particularly strong arm or innate play-making abilities.

Make no mistake, there is still plenty to play for this season (TECHNICALLY SPEAKING the Dawgs still control their own destiny in the SEC). But, Georgia is no longer a team that can afford to trust experience over talent. There's not been anywhere near enough consistency, and certainly not enough plays being made by most of the experienced guys. Slowly but surely (we're seeing this happen already), more young players must be given a chance to learn on the job. At this point, it's better to have someone who can make a game-changing play for the good, even if he might make a game-changing play for the bad.