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An Absurdly Premature Assessment of: Georgia

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A random, too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
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The least you should know about Georgia... What's Changed: Poor little Matt Stafford had one horrid first month as a starter, taking over for good after the second of a five-game stretch of doom in October and proceeding to lose three of the next four, including homecoming against Vanderbilt and at Kentucky, and barely beating Mississippi State. This seems like such a dark time in the midst of a season that began and ended with the light of victory, but in fact it had nothing to do with Stafford or Joe Tereshinki III's ability to move the offense. To wit:
2006 Record
9-4 (4-4 SEC, T-Third/East)
Past Five Years
53-13 (31-12 SEC)
Returning Starters, Roughly
9 (6 Offense, 3 Defense)
Best Player
Surprisingly slim pickings. I flirted with putting versatile, suspiciously bulging fullback Brannan Southerland here, and I suspect most UGA partisans will be thrilled if Matt Stafford earns his way into this position by the end of his sophomore season. But on a young team with gobs of untested talent, fifth-year senior Kregg Lumpkin still fits in, because he, too, toiled in "occasional flash" limbo behind Danny Ware and Thomas Brown, occasionally averaging five and six yards against tough defenses before finally earning what amounted to the feature role last September. He finished with double-digit carries in the last 11 games, and with twice as many as the unwisely-departed No. 2, Ware, and if he can get over injury and fumbling problems – and/or the challenges of Caleb King and the finely-named Knowshon Moreno – has the chance to finally fulfill his promise as a prototype blue chip nightmare.
Bizarre Tradition
For years now, I’ve argued the NFL should replace its bland, know-nothing television commentators with radio-style partisans possessing devout knowledge beyond the reputations of star players and only the thinnest veils of objectivity. These are the voices that ultimately define the emotions of a fan base, and no raspy, breathless voice has ever defined the naked, enthusiastic partiality to his school – or just the best kind of cheesy, genuine radio entertainment, in general – like Larry Munson, at his best here at the end UGA-Tech in 1997:
Proving again – like WWL New Orleans’ longtime, mushmouthed guru, Buddy Diliberto – that the best on-air sports radio professionals are almost always the least professional.
Bizarre Item of Dubious Interest
Georgia’s four losses in five games last year was the worst stretch since it had the same futile run to start the 1993 season. Ray Goff’s record the two years prior to that season was 19-5. Mark Richt’s two years prior to last year? 20-5. The difference of course, being the results (9-4 last year to 5-6 in ‘93) and the whole "three two conference titles in four years" thing. Still: watch out.
Georgia Offense, 2006
9 Wins 4 Losses
Rush Yds. 128.0 126.0
Pass Yds. 178.2 198.3
1st Downs 16.0 17.6
3rd Dwn % 39.2 41.3
TO Margin +6 -7

So losing had much less to do with every-down performance than with roughly once-a-quarter mistakes. And mistakes, where super-hyped freshmen quarterbacks are concerned, are correctable. Clearly, we have a huge level of optimism here: even if the receivers - a very talented group that was shuffled around in the Spring and has no more "growing pains" excuses - aren't any better at hanging onto the ball, and even if the running game is no less inconsistent/mediocre, there is no way sophomore Stafford throws anywhere near nine interceptions in a four-and-a-half-game span again. In the final three wins, in fact, while hardly spectacular, Stafford's TD:INT ratio against three top 25 defenses was 3:1, and Georgia's record was 3-0. If the defense holds up, at least two of those four Ls become Ws with no great leap in production on the other end.

Georgia fans look forward to counting on a more mature passer.
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What's the Same: About the defense - aside from the less-extreme-than-it-looks example of Tennessee (53 51 points, but "only" 383 yards), Georgia's defense was pretty stout as usual, the fifth straight year in the top ten in the country in either scoring or total defense. Even during the five-game October-early November collapse, UGA only gave up about 320 a game, and it rebounded by holding each of three straight nine-game winners under 200 to close the year. There's also this, an awesome rate on third down, and especially in short-yardage.

Given its consistency and its relative success replacing major departures the past two years, the defense still must be considered a strength, but that's only on reputation. On paper, the Dogs come back without three of a very tough front four, including bookened pass rushers who went on the first day of the draft, a pair of two-year linebacker starters who were also the team's top two tacklers and three of four in the secondary, one of whom dealt successfully with Calvin Johnson and was still a starter in the Spring.  Hand-wringing is probably less warranted there  - recruiting hype suggests either Asher Allen or Bryan Evans might be a star at cornerback by the end of the year, along with new starting safety C.J. Byrd - than in the front seven, where heralded Kade Weston and Brandon Wood remain buried on the depth chart, Marquis Elmore is no longer on the roster and highway patrol magnet Akeem Hebron will miss the season.

Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter: Paul Oliver: ineligible. Hebron: suspended. Matt Stafford: confirmed NASCAR fan. May was a cruel month for the Dawgs. At least five-star tailback signee Caleb King is living up to his end of the deal, graduating on time last week after a high school transfer, broken leg and work to come from way back in the classroom, from appearances.

That puts him in a rotation with Kregg Lumpkin and Thomas Brown, who have been around forever looking alternately very good and very hurt while being shuffled about in a crowded lineup, and redshirt freshman Knowshon Moreno, who led all runners in the Spring and virtually assures continued crowding. Lumpkin and Brown have done a lot of good in three years, during which time this backfield has nearly rivaled Auburn's as the deepest in the SEC, but they haven't approached the Tigers' production because of constant nicks and a general lack of breakaway ability, the latter of which, at least, the noobs might be able to boost immediately.

And, yes, to be clear: keg around with all the jorted hotties you like, NASCAR sucks and is not a sport. I will fight about this.

Georgia on YouTube: Here is evidence not only of Georgia's most famous football moment ("Run, Lindsay, run!"), but also of the humble beginnings of Gameday, as well as Chris Fowler's hair:

Note another "Cocktail Party" tradition: both sides have been "trying to downplay the party element," unsuccessfully, for going on at least two decades.

See Also: Former quarterback Bill Hartman falls on Uga ... Nothing on old school Heisman winner Frank Sinkwich, but there is a profile of the One-Man Team, Charley Trippi ... And, courtesy of Paul Westerdawg, James Brown does Dooley's Junkyard Dawgs, complete with "Georgia" spellout and the late, great Erk Russell.

Best-Case: A 5-0 September this time will mean more than last year's perfect start, coming as it would against Oklahoma State and South Carolina the first two weeks and what ought to be significantly improved Alabama and Ole Miss teams, and that's before the annual rundown of Tennessee, Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech. UGA has routinely lost two of those games under Richt (the halcyon 2002 and 2003 East champs exempted, though this group ain't them), but the talent level is good enough with an ideal encore from Stafford to win the East with minimum blemishes. That's going to preclude a mythical championship run even in the most optimistic case, but the SEC is open as ever.

The Dawgs mourn their most significant departure.
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Worst-Case: Stagnation offensively could spell real doom against a tough slate if the mostly new defense regresses at all - remember, among the close losses, for all the giveaways, there was a lot of good fortune, too: Georgia also won five games by a touchdown or less, three of them in a fourth quarter comeback.  One of them, Mississippi State, rolls off the schedule, replaced by Alabama. South Carolina can't  be taken for granted; Auburn won't be blown out again. Oklahoma State's dynamite offense makes it a scarier opener than Boise State a couple years ago (that is to say, a legitimate upset threat. For real). It's probably dangerous to assume at all with a team that lost to Vanderbilt, and probably should have lost to Colorado, but given a minimum of in-league victories over Vandy and Ole Miss and either Kentucky or South Carolina, the rest of the conference lineup and a post-Reggie Ball Georgia Tech is rough enough to inflict 5-7 misery.

Non-Binding Forecast: At first glance, Stafford is the logical fulcrum, but he rounded out of self-killer mode when the season was devolving into a genuine disaster and thus should quickly advance to the "saavy confidence" phase on his road to complete SEC dominance. Whatever his progress, he will no longer lose games. This will be worth a couple wins if the new faces on defense are as rigid as their predecessors, but among a five-game gauntlet like Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech - assuming UGA takes care of its business against three other `06 bowl winners - there are at least two losses. The SEC East depends on which ones those happen to be.

Going back to my previews of Tennessee and Florida, in both I saw a team that looked like it was destined for 9-3. Same with Georgia. There's a reason I call this section "non-binding."  Florida will get the default nod, but really, there's no favorite in this division. Hell, South Carolina has about 17 starters back - maybe the Gamecocks! That may or may not be a joke. The SEC will be very interesting.

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Previous Absurdly Premature Assessments...

March 12: Tulane March 13: Baylor March 16: UCLA March 20: Kentucky
March 21: Oregon March 22: Arizona State March 23: BYU March 27: Missouri
March 28: Troy March 29: Iowa State April 3: Alabama April 4: Akron
April 5: Cincinnati April 9: UL-Monroe April 10: Army April 11: Syracuse
April 18: Florida April 20: Southern Miss April 25: Southern Cal May 1: North Texas
May 3: SMU May 8: Nevada May 14: Tennessee May 21: TCU
May 24: Notre Dame May 29: UAB May 30: Georgia