Good evening, Dawg fans. When you woke up this morning, you woke up into a world where the Georgia Bulldogs are once again in control of our own destiny in the SEC East. This is the case thanks to a Missouri team that somehow managed to lose to Indiana at home. That would be an Indiana team who is currently tied for last in the B1G Eastern division, and whose only other win in 2014 came against the I-AA Indiana State
Fightin' Larry Birds Sycamores. Mind you, this is also a Missouri team that could very well beat Georgia in the "good" Columbia two weeks hence.
We have all next week to worry about how badly the Zou is going beat us, though. This week, we turn our attention to the Vanderbilt Commodores. When James Franklin came to Nashville, he made a great ballyhoo about how he was bringing "culture change" to the SEC's only private school. Franklin actually made good on his promise, too, turning Vandy into a team that was actually a legitimate contender in the SEC East in 2012 and 2013. Coach Franklin decided to pursue other, more exciting ventures in the B1G, however (such as getting blown out at home by Northwestern), so in 2014 the Commies have first-year coach Derek Mason at the helm. Fortunately for us, Coach Mason has instituted some culture change of his own on West End Avenue. Unfortunately for the Music City Mariners, that culture change is "back to the old Vanderbilt."
With an apologetic nod to Larry Munson, I'm just going to go ahead and proclaim that we ain't gonna lose to Vanderbilt. The primary questions are whether we'll cover (Protip: We won't) and how many carries Todd Gurley will get before Bobo takes his helmet away to save him for the Mizzou game (Protip: It'll probably be a smaller number than the spread for this game will be). The secondary question (other than literal questions about our secondary) is how many carries Nick Chubb will get, since he's now the backup with Sony Michel out, and Chubb is still playing injured with that surgically-repaired thumb. I think we'll see a lot of Brendan Douglas on Saturday, if we're lucky, because that will mean the game is well in hand.
That doesn't mean I can't still wring my hands in worry and despair, of course. Our team still has quite a few glaring issues that need to be addressed, so I'm letting the following people, places, and things know that, for week 6, You're On Notice, Dawg!
In no particular order:
1) Steve Spurrier - 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 paid Paul Finebaum a rather large sum of money to get Uga IX to kiss him on the air during the "SEC Nation" broadcast on Saturday.
2) Hutson Mason - Unfortunately, our starting quarterback did absolutely nothing to loosen his semi-permanent stranglehold on the #2 spot in this list. The more I think about it, though, the less I'm inclined to jump aboard the rapidly-expanding "Bench Mason" bandwagon. And no, it's not just the natural contrarian in me once again rearing its ugly head.
Let's think about this for a moment. First, I can't deny the fact that Mason just can't chuck the ball downfield very well. He also doesn't have anywhere near the "zip" on his passes that Aaron Murray, Matt Stafford, or David Greene had. But we also have to realize the fact that 3 of our best 5 receivers haven't yet played a snap in 2014. I think the WR depth chart probably looks something like this:
- Malcolm Mitchell
- Chris Conley
- Justin Scott-Wesley
- Michael Bennett
- Jonathon Rumph
Isaiah McKenzie and Reggie Davis are great, and might be numbers 6 and 7 on that list, but they are also both freshmen, and certainly aren't well-versed in our entire offensive system. Not only that, but freshmen are far more likely to screw up a downfield route, as Jeb Blazevich very embarrassingly did in the first quarter when he decided to start blocking downfield right as a Hutson Mason pass whizzed past his head. Even senior veteran Chris Conley admitted that he screwed up a route that led to Mason's second INT of the day.
Our WR corps just hasn't been that good through the first 4 games of the season. If we do get Mitchell, JSW, and Rumph back this week as Mark Richt has implied, and if they are 100% fit and ready to play, that might make Mason suddenly start to look a little better (or, at least, more competent).
Finally, I've stopped questioning Mike Bobo's skills as an evaluator of talent. Complain all you want about Bobo, but the guy knows how to evaluate and develop quarterbacks. If what he has seen over the past 18 months makes him think that Mason is better equipped to run our offense than Brice Ramsey, I'm going to take his word for it. He's earned the benefit of the doubt based on his track record with QB's, and I'm just a guy typing on a keyboard.
I will say this, though: if Mason is "our guy," then I hope we can find a way to make sure he doesn't completely lose confidence in himself. I watched the film room session with him on Saturday's "SEC Nation" show, and he struck me as someone with about the confidence level of a guy who just asked the ugliest girl in school to the Prom and got rejected. He didn't sound much better in interviews after the game. If Coach Bobo is going to stick with Mason the rest of the season no matter what, then he needs to figure out a way to get Hutson motivated and more confident himself. All QB's make mistakes and all have weaknesses... you just have to figure out how to rise above them.
3) Choosing to kickoff to start the game - In the past, I've supported Coach Richt's regular decision, if we win the coin toss, to defer to the second half, which essentially means that you're choosing to start the game on defense. In the past, however, we haven't proceeded to let every single team, in every single game, drive down the field and score on us. That has happened in 2014. We lost the coin toss in the Carolina and Troy games, but won the coin toss in the Clemson and Tennessee games. Both times, we deferred the choice to the second half, and started on defense. Both of the times we lost the toss, the opposing team chose to receive the opening kickoff, so we've started all 4 of our games on defense.
Clemson, South Carolina, and Troy all marched 70+ yards down the field on us in those opening drives, with the Tigers and Gamecocks punching in for a touchdown, while the Trojans missed a chip-shot field goal. The Vols only had slightly less success, driving the ball 43 yards and settling for a 46-yard field goal. So, in every game in which we've had a choice this season, we intentionally put ourselves in a hole literally from the first kick of the ball.
Choosing to go on defense first has merits when your defense has a reasonable expectation of stopping the other team from scoring. Our 2014 defense, however, has no such reasonable expectation. We have the best player in the country playing on our team. He does not play defense. When Georgia wins the coin toss, the Bulldogs should be choosing to receive the ball and putting our heels right on the opponents' throats from the beginning of the game.
This should be the plan. There should be no alternate plan.
4) Jeremy Pruitt - Look, I know our defensive backfield is incredibly young. Many of them have exactly 4 games of college experience under their belts, which ain't that much. The problem is not that our secondary is young and inexperienced. The problem is that I haven't seen any significant improvement over the last 4 games. We gave our opponents the blueprint for how to beat our defense in the Clemson game, and every team we've played since then has exploited our weaknesses to great effect (hapless and terrible Troy excepted).
At some point, you can't keep blaming the players. As the season progresses and we keep making the same mistakes over and over, at some point you have to point the accusatory finger at the coaches. Our players almost never broke towards the ball on passes yesterday. They were generally in position, but didn't work to take away the passing lanes as they opened up, and didn't work to make the plays when they were in position to break up passes.
You can't keep allowing your opponents to score 30+ points. Eventually, your offense will have a game where nothing seems to bounce right and nobody seems to be able to block correctly, and you will need your defense to keep the other guys out of the dang endzone. If we can't figure out pretty quickly how to do this, we'll find ourselves once again wondering what might have been as we sit in our living rooms and watch the SEC Championship Game featuring two teams not named "Georgia" on the first Saturday in December.
5) Third Down Conversions - And speaking of offense, ours has a name. That name is "Todd Gurley." One of the best measures of a team's ability to control the game on offense is how many third downs they convert. Yesterday, we had 10 third down situations. We converted exactly one of them. The problem is that because our offense is so run-oriented and pass-deficient, if we lose yards on 1st or 2nd down and find ourselves in a 3rd and long, we don't have a real threat to pick up that yardage.
So far this year, UGA is 36.17% on third down conversions (which means on third down, we get a first down 36.17% of the time). That's good for 96th in the nation. Let me repeat that: Georgia is the 96th-best team in the country on 3rd down conversions. Our peers in that neighborhood are Central Michigan, TCU, Louisiana Tech, and South Alabama. You don't want to be in the same breath as those teams in any statistic, except perhaps "Who has the best BBQ." (Put your hand down, Central Michigan. BBQ doesn't mean hamburgers and hot dogs.)
Losing the 3rd down conversion rate is a very bad sign for your offense's ability to make big plays at big times. At the very least, it probably means you can't just sit there and run out the clock with a long drive if you need it. More often what it means, though, is that your offense is relying on your defense to get them the ball back and keep the other team from scoring too much. As we know, that's a baaaad bet with our defense. We have to start picking these things up and extending drives.
6) Optimism of any kind (warranted or unwarranted) - Unlike my proclamation after the Clemson game, at this point in the season, there probably are some valid reasons for warranted optimism. We only have one SEC loss, and it was a close one built on the back of two fluky FG misses by our normally-reliable kicker. Our team has proven in 3 of our first 4 games that they can face down adversity, laugh in its face, and keep fighting hard even when the odds are against them.
We've got a mentally tough team, no question about it. I just have a problem when I try to translate that to the remaining 8 games we have on the schedule. I mean, if absolutely nothing changes with regards to our passing game and defense, why would anybody feel confident about us beating Missouri? Or Arkansas? And don't even get started thinking about Auburn.
We're going to have to take this season one game at a time and just hope we start to improve in our weakest areas. You can't take anything for granted at this point, and even though I'm confident in our position against Vanderbilt, there's nothing that says they can't come out and abuse our defense the same way that literally every single team we've played has done. I can't project anything about how our season will end up right now. We could finish 11-1, or we could go 7-5. It could legitimately go either way.
7) Injuries - I was thinking about this point Saturday night, and I realized that the extent of our injury situation really has snuck up on me. In 2013, our season totally collapsed because we lost virtually all of our best skill players. Well, in 2014, we're one wrong hit on Todd Gurley away from being in the exact same situation.
As we stand today, we are missing the following top-level skill players for an unknown amount of time: Malcolm Mitchell, Justin Scott-Wesley, Jonathon Rumph, Keith Marshall, and Sony Michel. On top of that, Nick Chubb has a broken thumb, but is playing in a cast. And the kicker is that we don't have an All-American field general like Aaron Murray holding it all together.
According to Coach Richt, we're probably going to get Mitchell, JSW, and Rumph back this Saturday, and I eagerly await their return. Hopefully their playing time against Vandy will help get them back into game shape for the gauntlet that remains against Mizzou, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, and Auburn. If they're not ready to come back, though, or if those players are something like 50% of where they should be, we're back in the same ol' boat.
Let's all take a minute and say a silent prayer to the college football gods that Todd Gurley remains healthy for every game this year... or at least until Sony Michel is healthy again. If Gurley goes down, we're looking at 2013 all over again, but without Aaron Murray to save us.
8) Cynthia Johnston Turner, The UGA Director of Bands - I don't normally criticize anything about the Redcoat Band, since it is the best damn marching band in all of college athletics. They bring the noise and lead the crowd in bringin' the ruckus for every game, all game, and I respect that. This past April, though, the University appointed Cynthia Johnston Turner as the new director of bands at UGA. Now, I have nothing personal against Ms. Turner, and I'm sure she's doing a great job in her position as director of bands.
The issue here is that Ms. Turner has conducted the Redcoats during every playing of the national anthem this year, and she conducts the song as though she has a prop bet on the "Under" for how long it will take to finish the thing. Seriously, check out this clip from the Troy pregame and see it for yourself.
In my opinion, one of the greatest traditions at Sanford Stadium is that everyone stands up and sings the national anthem along with the band as they play it. We don't get some fancy-pants recording artist no one has ever heard of (or somebody like Kenny Chesney, who is a lifelong fan of whichever team he's visiting today) to mangle the national anthem in the name of "musical art." We just play it simple and get the band to play, and the crowd sings along. It's classic, and it's awesome. How can one expect 90,000+ people to sing the national anthem in unison, however, when you're playing it so fast that by the time you hear the first line, the band is practically already playing the, "and the rockets red glare" part?
Do us a favor, Ms. Turner. Please conduct the national anthem at a slightly slower pace. I'm not asking you to drag it out so it sounds like you're playing a 78 LP at 45 RPM, but slowing the tempo down to a manageable singing speed would be much appreciated by this Bulldog fan. Also, God created fermatas for a reason. It's not a crime to use them for more than just the final bar of the song.
That's it for this week, Dawg fans! We finally get out of the dreaded noon kickoff slot this week, as our game against the Commies will be starting at 4:00PM, and will be televised on the SEC Network. Show up early, wear your red, and be loud!