My friends, we have finally crossed through the last vestiges of that barren wasteland known as the offseason, and it's finally time to once again
wring our hands in despair kick off the game week festivities at Dawg Sports by contemplating this Saturday's upcoming University of Georgia football game. In normal game weeks, we'll have various game wrap-up posts from the previous game on Saturday night and Sunday morning, and even on into the week, but the "On Notice" post signals the beginning of a shift from looking back at the last game to looking forward to the next game. Players have to do it, and I like to try to do it as a fan, too. Seeing as there was no game last week, however, we'll be starting from scratch today.
I don't know about y'all, but this offseason has actually passed me by much more quickly than I anticipated. Normally, I'm dragging from National Signing Day until the season actually starts, gobbling up the nourishment of Phil Steele's magazine and other preseason prognostications as soon as they come out to help me make it back to the Fall. This year, though, the long months didn't bother me as much. There are logical reasons for why this might be the case... most notably, my wife and I have a new son that was born on December 29, so we've been involved in that all-consuming first year of parenthood. Also, it seems like I've been an order of magnitude more busy at my "real job" than normal. I believe I know the actual reason why I haven't noticed the offseason as much this year, though: 2013 broke me.
No, seriously. The 2013 season absolutely broke my will. The Georgia Bulldogs came into 2013 ranked in the top 5 with national championship thoughts on their mind, and managed to beat 2 of the 3 top-10 opponents they faced in their first 4 games. Then, it all fell apart, starting with a disastrous night at Neyland Stadium. Certainly not in my life can I recall a game that so typifies the term "Pyrrhic Victory" as the 2013 Tennessee game. It seemed like nobody made it out of that game uninjured, including Mark Richt. After losing Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall, Malcolm Mitchell, Justin Scott-Wesley, and Michael Bennett to injuries, we were depleted and demoralized, and limped our way to a 8-4 regular season finish. And to quite literally add insult to injury, one of those losses was brought on by the most horrendous targeting call ever seen, which was actually upheld on replay, and because of which the targeting rule was changed for 2014. I was actually relieved when circumstances conspired to keep me in the hospital with my newborn baby without access to a TV when we played Nebraska in the Gator Bowl. And to be honest, after knowing how the game turned out, I didn't even watch it once afterwards. I kept it around on the DVR for about a month, then deleted it.
The 2013 season left me a depleted husk of a Dawg fan. We've had disappointing seasons before (hello, 2010). We've had disappointing individual games before (HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA (((((((((45-42)))))))). But not in my lifetime can I recall a season that crushed all good feelings, hope, and optimism under a sea of despair. I mean, by the time Aaron Murray got injured on Senior Day with a torn ACL and had to be carried off the field in his last home game, I had lost all of my ability to feel emotions. I just kind shrugged to myself and said, "Yeah, that's about right for this year."
Why am I bringing all this up as we approach the cusp of a new season, you might ask? Well, it's only to justify this statement: If you're looking for the "new optimism" which has prevailed on this site since The Mayor (or, as you might know him now, Kyle Weblog) passed the reins to Macondawg, you won't find it from me. My hope has ceased to exist, and won't be stirred again until the 2014 season provides a reason to rouse me from my melancholy state (if it ever does). I would say, "I hope that happens starting this week..." but weren't you listening? I said my hope is gone. I have no hope. Only my undying love for and fanhood of the University of Georgia remains unfettered. That will be enough to ensure that my butt is in its customary seat in Sanford Stadium this Saturday, and that I will be once again cheering for our Dawgs with all my strength. And that's all I've got.
As with last year, our 2014 season starts off quickly, with two of our most difficult opponents coming up in our first 2 games. There won't be an opportunity to shake off the rust and get into game shape... we have to be ready from day 1. So, I'm letting the following people, places, and/or things know that for Week 1 of the college football season, You're On Notice, Dawg!
In no particular order:
1) Steve Spurrier - The Ol' Ball Coach retains his honorary position in the top "On Notice" spot this year. Why Steve Spurrier? Because he hates us, we hate him, and because I have it from a very authoritative source inside the South Carolina administration that he is spearheading a grassroots campaign to make "Sandstorm" the new official South Carolina state song.
2) Hutson Mason - A football team is far more than the performance of just one man, but if the last 13 years have taught us anything, it's that a successful Mark Richt-coached team requires an All-SEC-caliber quarterback leading it. From a personal standpoint, Mason is already a DGD in my book, since he willingly rode the bench for 4 years just to get a chance at starting for one year after Aaron Murray graduated. His results on the field, though, have yet to show us whether we will remember him more like a D.J. Shockley or more like a Joe Cox. Both 1-year starters are generally well-remembered personally by Bulldog fans for their loyalty to UGA, but Shockley was able to lead the Dawgs to a SEC championship in our first post-David-Greene season, while Joe cox led the Dawgs to a moribund 8-5 season in 2009 after Matthew Stafford headed off to Detroit.
Hutson does have a unique advantage in that he was able to get two starts under his belt last year after Aaron Murray went down late in the Kentucky game. He was very shaky early against Georgia Tech before charging back and leading the team to a comeback win, and he was just plain shaky against Nebraska in our Gator Bowl loss. He's had a full offseason to learn from those experiences, however, and to work on his timing with the receiver corps and his vision downfield, so hopefully he'll be able to improve in those areas.
The bottom line is that our stable of running backs is as stocked as it's ever been under Mark Richt, so we don't really need Mason to chuck the ball 50+ times a game. He needs to provide a solid passing threat to open up our running lanes and keep the dual-threat nature of our offense alive. If he can do that, I think that's all we'll need. It's still a tall order, though, against SEC defenses.
3) The Offensive Line - So many people have been fretting about losing 3 starters off our offensive line from last year, and I suppose that number, in and of itself, is rather daunting. I would remind you, however, that our blocking was truly horribawful at times even with those starters in the game last year. Even the Todd Gurley's and Keith Marshall's of the world can't run through a wall of 8 guys just sitting there, unblocked, waiting for them. And even the Aaron Murray's of the world can't engineer a game-winning drive if they have less than one second to look at the field before they're blown up on the blindside by a defensive end that came in untouched.
Our center, David Andrews, is one of the best in the SEC, so I'm not worried about him. What I would like to see is some more consistency from the other linemen that are supposed be the best guys we have... specifically, John Theus. Theus started as a freshman in the SEC, which is no small feat, but to be honest, he was dominated mercilessly most of his freshman year. His performance last year a sophomore wasn't quite as bad, but he was incredibly streaky. In fact, I think that lack of real "lockdown" ability is what has kept him from being named the Left Tackle in 2014. You need a LT that will protect your QB's blindside without fail, and Theus has let far too many blockers come in completely untouched over the past two seasons to be considered reliable.
If we're going to improve on last year's 8-5 mark, the offensive line is going to have to lead the way... literally.
4) Special Teams - Marshall Morgan had a Lou Groza-esque season with field goals in 2013, so I have no beef with him (presuming he can keep up that pace this year). All of the other special teams units, however... we need to have a little talk. We had punts blocked at inopportune times last year because our punter takes a long walkup and we couldn't block for that one extra step. Our Punt Return team fair-caught so many balls that Logan Gray started to feel jealous. Our kick return unit almost never got the ball past the 30 last year. And our kickoff team, for some reason, simply can't put the ball deep in the endzone (or just completely through it). All of these things need to change this year.
5) Hope - See my diatribe at the beginning of this post. A purportedly-wise man once said, "Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies." Well, that man (who was an alcoholic, a convicted felon, and who was celebrated in popular culture for escaping from a maximum security prison) was never a University of Georgia football fan.
6) Jeremy Pruitt - Our new defensive coordinator certainly is no stranger to pressure. He coached under Nick Saban at Alabama, and there is no greater pressure than coaching in a national championship game, as he did as the DC at Florida State in 2013 and as a position coach at Bama in 2011 and 2012. With such a track record under his belt, some might consider it a personal disappointment for him if he didn't continue his streak of national championships with a trophy in 2014. I have no such lofty expectations for Coach Pruitt's squad, though. What I want to see from him is, essentially, what we did not see from his immediate predecessor: a scheme that doesn't confuse our players on the field, enabling them instead to take advantage of their athletic talents and be well-positioned to make plays.
Not only that, but we have to create far more turnovers. You're never going to completely eliminate turnovers on offense, so the defense has to help the team garner a positive turnover margin by creating takeaways. Interceptions, in particular, have been incredibly lacking in the past 3 years, and we simply have to change that statistic.
Just as important as turnovers, as well, is shutting down opponents on third down. Our third down conversion rate was 39.49% last year (lower numbers are better), which was absolutely abysmal. That put us 64th in the nation in 3rd down defensive coversions, alongside the likes of teams like Tulane (62nd) and FIU (65th). The fact that our D just couldn't get off the field on 3rd down unquestionably contributed to some of the defensive meltdowns we saw late in games, as defenders got more and more fatigued.
There's a lot to fix on defense, and Jeremy Pruitt comes with impeccable credentials. Hopefully, our offense will be good enough that we won't need the defense to pitch shutouts (or even hold opponents to single digits). There's no question that if our record is going to improve from last year, though, Jeremy Pruitt's new defense will have to improve along with it.
7)The secondary - So, yes, we've got a new, ostsensibly simpler, scheme with Coach Pruitt and a new energy to reinvigorate the defense. Unfortunately, we've also got an almost entirely new secondary with which to implement these things. Cornerback Damian Swann and safeties Corey Moore and Quincy Mauger are the only regular contributors from last year that will be back patrolling the outfield in 2014. We do still have Sheldon Dawson, who showed a lot of promise, and JUCO transfer Shattle Fenteng figures to be part of the mix, as well, though we don't yet know to what extent. J.J. Green has also moved from running back to cornerback, and we saw in 2013 that he's very fast and very talented in a backfield, but there's always a learning curve with a player moving into a new position, so I wouldn't expect Green to be one of our top contributors on day one.
As I've said before, our schedule is once again top-heavy, with two of our best opponents, Clemson and South Carolina, lining up against us in our first two games. There's no time for the new guys in the secondary to be learning the position as the games go on. They have to show up ready to go this Saturday, or else we'll get burned over and over down the field.
8) Students with tickets - I was incredibly pleased with student turnout last season, even as we struggled mightily on the field near the end. Up until 2013, the students had been making regular appearances on my list as the large sections of the stadium reserved for them sat significantly underused, even at big games. In 2013, however, those kids shut me up after week 1, and I couldn't be happier about it. Sanford Stadium seats over 92,000 people, but let's be honest and admit that about 80% of the crowd noise on any given Saturday comes from the student section. When the students show up in force, and are loud and proud throughout the entire game, our home field advantage increases by an order of magnitude. The atmosphere is electric, and Sanford Stadium becomes all that it should be on a Georgia Bulldogs gameday. So much can change from one season to the next, so I feel compelled to include the students again in week 1, but trust me; if y'all show up and do what we need you to do, you won't be on this list again.
That's it for this week! Our hearts are still heavy with the loss of Dan Magill, but our ol' ball coach would have been just as excited as we are about the start of a new football season. UGA has asked for the fans to all wear red this Saturday against the Clemson Tigers, which seems kind of odd, since that's what most people wear anyway... but make a note of it! Make sure you wear your red, show up early, and let the Tigers from the "other" Death Valley know what it's like to feel the Bulldog bite!