With the game just about 80 hours away, we begin our extensive look at the Georgia Bulldogs through the eyes of the frenemy. Macondawg at Dawg Sports was kind enough to answer a metric ton of questions (and ask more than a few himself.) So, we’ll have his two-part responses here over the next few days, and our two-parter will be over at Dawg Sports beginning tomorrow (we’ll hit you with those links, of course.)
Dawg Sports and Roll Bama Roll were among the very first SBN college sites; I think we were 6th and 8th, respectively. And, by now, you’re very familiar with the cast of characters, present and past, at both networks. So, it is kind of nice to “meet” like this. And, if you’ve not seen their work, then shame on you. It’s not too late to get over there.
Dig in: I firmly believe these are some of the best responses to a Q&A this website has received in its 11-year history.
1. These teams last met in October of 2015. From the outside at least, it doesn’t really seem as though much has structurally changed for the ‘Dawgs: The quarterbacking is still protected by a run-heavy offense; the secondary is excellent; the young front seven that Alabama faced are intact but have matured; the offensive line is built to maul; the defensive philosophies even are the same -- all of these guys learned the same system from Nick Saban. The question then is, what really has changed with since 2015 in the Bulldogs’ identity that wouldn’t be readily apparent to an outsider?
In a way, everything and nothing at all. You’re right, schematically it’s the same song played by a different cover band. Georgia’s not trying to do very much different from what they tried to do defensively under Jeremy Pruitt in 2015. Offensively, things are a bit more nuanced than under offensive coordinator He Who Must Not Be Named, but it’s still about getting the ball to the five-star tailback and letting him do his thing. The difference is the program-wide execution. In my mind that’s always been the “secret sauce” for Saban’s Alabama teams, the preparation day in and day out.
Georgia has committed more resources to recruiting, nutrition, and facilities than most longtime program observers (myself included) ever thought could be shaken loose. As much as we like to talk about coaches as some sort of high priests of the gridiron there’s something to be said for just going out and committing the resources to do the things that need to be done. Georgia made a run at Scott Cochran because he is the best at what he does. They ended up with Scott Sinclair, also an excellent veteran S&C guy and surrounded him with the staff and tools he needed. Kirby Smart thought Sam Pittman was the best offensive line coach he could get his hands on and he pried him away from Arkansas (where he’d landed because Butch Jones is a horrible football decision maker, but that’s a story for another day). In a lot of ways it’s similar to what Saban did when he arrived in Tuscaloosa, extracting from the administration the promise that they would do what he deemed necessary to get where they all wanted to go.
Those behind the scenes changes have paid off with a team that is deeper, plays smarter, and is tougher both mentally and physically than Richt’s teams did at all but their absolute peak.
2. A related question: Given Georgia’s roster, the schedule, the veteran talent (particularly in the backfields and along defensive line,) and the steep drop-off in the SEC this season, Georgia would still be in the playoffs with Mark Richt as its head man, wouldn’t it? Or, is Kirby Smart largely getting the credit for this playoff run from ‘Dawg fans?
Admittedly, as all but the most delusional UGA fans saw, the program in Athens wasn’t “broken.” All but about five SEC schools would love to win ten games every year and go to Atlanta every three seasons or so. But, as someone who sat in Sanford Stadium in the pouring rain on October 3, 2015, I get why the change was made. The Tide defensive line warmed up about fifty feet in front of me and Dawg Sports editor emeritus T. Kyle King. After about two minutes of watching them, I turned to Kyle and flatly predicted, “we’re in for an ass-whipping.”
And we were. What became obvious to me that day, and what I think became obvious to the powers that be in the UGA athletic department and among the boosters who keep the lights on, was that the Georgia program had reached a plateau. To be fair it was a higher plateau than the one it had reached under Jim Donnan. But at that moment Georgia was looking down at South Carolina and Mississippi State and the rest of the great unwashed middle of the SEC. They were close enough to touch. And while some programs in the East have managed to regress (hello, Rocky Top . . .looking at you, Florida . . .) Georgia has taken several steps forward which I don’t believe would have occurred under Richt.
There are some differences which I can point to in very concrete terms. For one, Jake Fromm would almost certainly be at Alabama if Kirby Smart were still there. Richt had secured a commitment from current FSU quarterback Bailey Hockman and essentially stopped recruiting Fromm. As someone who watched both of those guys multiple times over the course of two high school seasons this still boggles my mind, nevertheless it was the actual determination made by Richt and Schottenheimer. I feel comfortable saying that if Georgia had been forced to play either redshirt senior Brice Ramsey or Hockman if he stuck to his pledge. You remember Ramsey, he of the 1-of-6-with-two- interceptions-performance in that 2015 UGA/Bama matchup.
Second, three of the five starters on Georgia’s offensive line were recruited at least in part by the current staff, four if you count Pittman taking defensive line castoff Lamont Gaillard and turning him into a potential All-SEC center. I don’t think that happens under the prior UGA staff. And Sam Pittman would not be coaching that offensive line. Ask Bret Bielema how much losing Pittman meant to Arkansas, if you can catch him before he leaves for the golf course.
But the intangibles are likely the biggest difference. You’ll never convince me that a Mark Richt-coached team wouldn’t have taken its foot off the gas or layed an egg against Florida, South Carolina, or Georgia Tech. You’ll also never convince me that many of the critical, heads-up special teams plays we’ve seen this season would have happened under Richt, because they rarely did from 2009 to 2015. In short, I expect Mark Richt would have had Georgia in the Outback Bowl as the loser of the SEC Championship Game, because prior performance is the best indicator of future success.
3. Georgia runs the ball close to 70% of the time, and I don’t think any knowledgeable observer thinks that Bulldogs will try to reinvent themselves in one week. So, what does Georgia need to do to be successful running the ball?
Be a little less predictable running the ball. That percentage you cit goes up to close to 81% on first down. There’s a pretty impressive body of advanced stat research that finds that most football teams don’t throw the ball enough on first down. Jim Chaney hasn’t read a word of it. I’d love to see Georgia go play action early and often in this one because I think Javon Wims in particular and Riley Ridley to a lesser extent could be tough matchups for the Bama secondary. It’s just easier to run against seven men in the box than nine, but Fromm will have to connect on some passes to make that happen.
Even at its best Georgia’s rushing offense isn’t about opening gaping holes on every play. For example, while it might have felt at times like Georgia ran hog wild against Oklahoma, the Bulldog offense was actually stuffed repeatedly. Nick Chubb had runs of 25, 45, and 50 yards. But only four of his fourteen carries gained more than five yards. Georgia has made a living this season on catching defenders misaligned, wrong-footed, or shooting the wrong gap. Jim Chaney wants to get the ball in the hands of Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, and lately freshman D’Andre Swift enough times to let the magic happen. Against a fair-to-poor run defense like Oklahoma’s that magic happens more frequently. Now Chaney just needs to figure out how to misalign and wrong-foot the Alabama defense that’s #1 in the country against the run. And that isn’t going to be easy.
4. Looking at the offensive line stats for the ‘Dawgs, Georgia is a much better run-blocking team than it is a pass-blocking one: Georgia is 109th in standard-down sacks, 44th in passing downs, and 68th overall. Is this a function of scheme, freshman pocket passer, down-and-distance/game situation, or is it the composition of the line? Some combination of those? Other?
A little of everything. All-SE left tackle Isaiah Wynn was among the most reliable pass blockers in the league. But Georgia struggled some on the right side, where it’s currently starting true freshman Andrew Thomas at tackle and redshirt freshman Ben Cleveland at guard. There have also been some missed assignments by tight ends that have led to sacks off the edge. I think that’s the largest part of it. Some of the issue, especially early in the season, was Fromm holding onto the ball too long. Like a lot of young quarterbacks, he’s getting better at that in a hurry, developing an internal clock that moves at SEC speed.
And, as noted above, when you run the ball four out of five times on first down you find yourself in a lot of 3rd and 5+ situations. Georgia’s been pretty good on third down, but I really worry about this one turning on Jake Fromm coughing it up on a 3rd and 8 where everyone in the building knows he’s about to drop back, and he knows the Alabama defense is bringing five and dropping six in Jeremy Pruitt’s trademark exotic fashion.
5. Jake Fromm has done a great job limiting mistakes this season: just 5 INTs to 23 TDs. When is he at his best? What are his limitations that give you pause going into this game?
Those numbers would obviously be much worse without the running game. Like most freshmen, Fromm is probably at his best when he doesn’t have to think. And Jim Chaney has done a great job of putting Fromm in situations where he doesn’t have to think as much as the defense does. Georgia will generally mix in some RPO 4-6 times a game, and we’ve seen a lot of one- and two-receiver routes, especially on the goalline, where Jake just needs to throw to a spot and let Javon Wims or Terry Godwin go get it. As noted above, I’m worried about third and long. Because Jeremy Pruitt does a great job of disguising where the pressure is coming from, and I can easily imagine Fromm worrying about the pressure coming and missing a trailing linebacker on a crossing route or rushing an eight yard out and having it go the other way for six.
6. Commiseration time: Just a few weeks ago, Alabama played its worst game in two years when it traveled to Jordan-Hare stadium. But, a much bigger “hold my beer” moment happened a week before when Georgia came to town. Was that game, like Alabama’s derpy loss, a culmination of little season-long problems that just manifested all at one time or was it a one-off, things-happen-at-Auburn, it’s-their-super-bowl game? Did anything in that loss reveal weaknesses that you expect Alabama will try to exploit?
That was Georgia’s worst tackling game of the season, and the Tigers made them pay for it. It was also the game in which the Bulldog rushing offense looked most mortal. Sam Pittman made some personnel changes up front that seem to have really made a difference and solved that issue. Georgia’s not going to push the Alabama front seven around, but I think the offensive line will open some holes. I’m far more worried about a Bulldog team that played an emotional game in California and then took the redeye back to Athens being a step slow and out of position on defense. Fatigue is the enemy of sound tackling, and we’ll know fairly early Monday night if that’s going to be an issue.
7. It’s pretty funny that Auburn has to watch this game, isn’t it?
It’s freaking hilarious. I think we can all agree on that one.
8. Roquan Smith is a great player, a worthy Butkus winner for sure. How will he be used in this game to limit the Alabama offense? And, is it fair to say that the best UGA defensive unit may really be the UGA secondary?
Roquan may be the most versatile defender in college football. The best example of that came late in the Rose Bowl when on nearly back to back plays he stuffed a receiver in the flat for no gain, then turned around and ran stride for stride with speedy tailback Rodney Anderson on a wheel route. If anyone was ever going to cover the wheel route, it would be Roquan Smith. We’ve seen Mel Tucker use that combination of tackling and open field speed to shadow mobile quarterbacks like Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush, so I expect a little of that to defend Jalen Hurts. But, a lot of what Georgia needs Smith to do in this one is what he’s done all year: make tackles. Smith actually had his first missed tackle of the season against Oklahoma (he previously had 70 solo stops in the run game without a miss). Especially late, as Alabama’s superior depth begins to take a toll, stopping the Tide for three yards on third-and-four would be about the most important thing he could do.
Great stuff from Macondawg. We’ll have Part Two for you tomorrow.