Mailbag: How much pressure should be on Kirby Smart and Georgia to win the SEC East?
Rejoice, Georgia football fans: Sometimes you just need some time away come back just as entertaining and informative as ever. We speak, of course, of Game of Thrones.
The mailbag is back too. And we return with an apology: Apparently when you’re away for several months, it creates a backlog of questions. For those of you whose question wasn’t published or addressed, we apologize, but also invite you to resubmit them next week.
That said, plenty is addressed here: The concerns about the offensive line, special teams, why Notre Dame is favored over Georgia, Jim Chaney, what to make of Greg McGarity, a lightning round of quick questions, and then someone tries hard to get me in trouble.
But first, we begin with someone asking about expectations. And by expectations, he doesn’t mean low ones …
I agree with this statement, “If UGA does not win the East this year it will not be a disappointment, it will be a disaster.” I say this not because Kirby will be fired if he doesn’t (although Greg McGarity might be), but because he has all the tools and the resources this year. No excuses. Win something meaningful. Damnit! We can talk about performance in the SEC Championship, but first you must win the East. If Kirby does not win the East this year, it will put a pall over the whole football program and the clock will be ticking louder and louder each game thereafter. He can recruit but… What do you think? — Glenn, Newnan, Ga.
A pall over the program if the division isn’t won … a disaster … sounds like some suggestions to send over to UGA’s marketing staff!
So I guess I need to put you in the category of having high expectations? I do see where you’re coming from, as Georgia fans are impatient in general — not necessarily with Smart, but just with things in general. But even speaking as someone who would pick Georgia to win the division, I’d offer this caution: Let the season play out before declaring any absolutes. Georgia could stumble along this season and still back into the division title, then get blown out in the SEC championship. Would the season be thus still considered a success? On the other hand, what if Georgia goes 11-1 or 10-2, and wins a lot of games convincingly, but the one or two critical losses cost it the division title. Wouldn’t the overall improvement still make the season a success?
More than anything this year, I think the eye test is important for Georgia football. Whatever the final record, whatever titles are or aren’t won, how does this team look? Does it look well-coached? Does the offense look better and provide hope? Last year’s team wasn’t just 8-5, but its points differential was only plus-7. Yes, it was three close losses away (Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Georgia Tech) from being 11-2. It was also four one-possession wins (Nicholls State, Missouri, Kentucky and Auburn) from being 4-9.
This year can certainly be judged on whether Georgia wins the East. The division is there for the taking. But it can also be judged on how Georgia plays and looks, and how much hope that provides for the future.
Like many others, I think the success of this year’s team depends on the success of the O-line. I thought Chip (Towers’) recent article was spot on (O-line Must Come Through for Dogs to Meet Expectations). My concern is that the guys lined up to be starters this year were not good enough to beat out the starters last year that were not very good. Either Sam Pittman does an amazing job of developing the guys already on the team (see last line of article referenced above), or we’re going to have to rely on some talented true freshmen to play right away.
From all the recruiting hype it sounds like Isaiah Wilson is the most likely to come in and play right away. What are the chances that both Isaiah Wilson and Andrew Thomas break into the starting lineup and possibly allow (Isaiah) Wynn to move back to guard? It’s probably not going to happen for Game 1, but I wonder, and hope, that by middle of the season these young talents show why they were such highly regarded recruits and our O-line takes a big step forward. — David Knowlton
David, you do an excellent job of summing everything up. I do believe one of the freshmen has a good chance to start at right tackle on the first game, and from there it could just be a matter of time. But last year they essentially kept the offensive line the same throughout the year. So even if, say, Wilson starts at right tackle and does well, and Thomas looks good in practice, will he be inserted into the lineup if the other guys are playing well?
It’s an interesting dynamic: They have some veteran linemen, but Pittman is entering the second of a three-year contract, and Smart obviously isn’t going anywhere, so will they be tempted to roll the dice and put in the freshmen? Would offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, whose job security may be a bit more tenuous even though he’s also signed through 2018, have any objections to letting the young linemen learn on the job?
There are two reasons for optimism on the line: Sam Pittman’s track record, and the fact that I believe this year the coaches understand going in that they have to diagram around possible deficiencies on the line. Last year it seemed the coaches still game-planned and called plays as if they had a dependable, great line. This year, it’s just a hunch, but I think they know that while it could turn out to be a good line, they can’t depend on it.
Keep up the good work Seth … One of the more obvious weaknesses from 2016 was the Dawgs’ inability to flip the field. Coverage and returns for punting and kickoff were lacking at times. I understand there is competition and more depth to provide help here. What have you seen or heard that would convince you that there will be improvements in each of these areas? — Chuck Mayfield, Blythewood, S.C.
Really, there’s one thing that I’ve heard that should be a source of optimism: Georgia’s improved depth, which means that the second- and third-teamers who may populate special teams, will be better than in previous years. Georgia recruited well on defense, for instance, but most of those guys won’t be able to sniff a starting spot yet so will get experience on special teams. So the hope is that blocking will be better.
Otherwise, Isaiah McKenzie and Reggie Davis are gone, so the return men will be new. And the punting and kickoffs will either be in the hands — feet, actually — of the same people, or of graduate transfers who beat them out. So we’ll have to see.
Seth, with Georgia supposedly improving, and being ranked in preseason polls…why are so many people picking Notre Dame over Georgia? The Irish aren’t even ranked in the preseason polls I have seen, and they don’t appear to have the depth and talent Georgia has. I mean, Georgia has a 5-star quarterback (with experience), an improved line, TWO 5-star backs in Chubb and Michel, and a defense with several future NFL players. What gives? – Midas Wilder
At the risk of sounding like a homer, I have to say I’ve been surprised by this too. I saw Bovada put Notre Dame as an early 2.5-point favorite, or something like that. It’s usually a 3-point swing for the home team, so that means the game is regarded as a pick-em. Maybe I’m looking too much into Notre Dame’s record, but … 4-8. That’s a lot of faith in the Irish improving that much in the offseason.
That said, Georgia is coming off a disappointing season itself. But not that disappointing. I do reserve the right to pick Notre Dame once the week of the game arrives and I’ve had a chance to gauge both team’s season openers. I’m just surprised at the early leans toward the Domers on this one.
After a mediocre home schedule for 2017, I really feel that demand for tickets will skyrocket in 2018. The Dawgs are on a tear on the recruiting trail and we all have very high expectations for the coming years. Has there been talk or rumors of possibly adding a third tier on the east end of the stadium to connect the north stands with the south stands? I think a proactive discussion is warranted. — Frank Davis, Class of 1970
Nope, I’ve heard nothing about that. Their full attention right now, as far as Sanford Stadium, or football-related facilities, is the west end zone project. Right now Sanford Stadium, at a 92,000-plus capacity, is the 11th-largest stadium in the U.S.
THE ATHLETIC DIRECTOR UNDER FIRE
It seems there are some people who do not understand the difference between a “hit piece” and publishing a letter from an influential Bulldogs letterman, booster and alumnus to underscore the dissatisfaction the majority of people in the vast DawgNation are feeling about the facts of Greg McGarity’s lack of forward-thinking vision and underwhelming leadership as AD. Where almost every single sport is performing worse now than when he took over as AD, and how he is doing nothing to stem the tide of mediocrity within the Athletic Association (not firing coaches Mark Fox or Scott Stricklin for starters) or creating a master plan to improve facilities. They are now so poor that UGA lost the ability to host the NCAA Tennis Championships, which Dan Magill worked so hard to make a semi-annual event in Athens. It’s as if Greg McGarity’s short-sighted penny-pinching is costing UGA in more ways then one, which is one of the many issues I believe Carroll Minick was trying to highlight in his letter, not hit piece.
Could you kindly explain the difference so those people would no longer be able to hide behind their ignorance? – Matthew Cafaro
Actually, the response to the Minick letter, at least judging by social media and the comments on the story, seemed to be around 90 percent in support. (Though not everyone agreed with everything in the letter. I didn’t either.) And, as I’ve told UGA officials who have complained to me about the thrust of my stories this year, there hasn’t been much, if any, blowback from the fan base. We feel, as Chip Towers put it the other day, that we’re reflecting the dissatisfaction of the fan base. But we’re also informing them, such as the $33 million that was in the UGA foundation but the school didn’t advertise.
The people I speak to on a regular basis, donors and alumni alike, want Georgia to be great. They feel that enough isn’t being done now to be great. They want the best for a school they love, and they wanted light shed on these issues. I have no doubt that Greg McGarity loves Georgia dearly. So do his critics. They evidently just disagree on the best way to get to the mountaintop.
McGarity’s statement in May to the athletic board – “let us not be distracted by those who seek to divide us” – struck many as not seeing the point of the criticism, and the stories that give voice to these critics: They’re not seeking to divide; they’re seeking to make Georgia better.
The job of the media, meanwhile, is to inform the public and hold the feet of the powerful to the fire. I hope that’s what we’ve been doing.
How many freshmen do you feel will make significant contributions in a) The App St game and b) the Georgia Tech game. (First game and by year end.) — Denmen195 (via DawgNation forum)
Hmm, very well-constructed question. I’ll bite: Starting or playing significant snaps in the season opener: Deangelo Gibbs, J.J. Holloman, Isaiah Wilson … By the end of the year: Gibbs, Holloman, Wilson, Andrew Thomas, Richard LeCounte, Trey Blount, D’Andre Swift, William Poole. It would be more, but there’s so much depth on defense already.
Do you think D’Andre Swift has a chance to get legitimate play time this year, or is he a redshirt candidate? — Warner
I’d be surprised if he redshirts. Swift may not jump right into the tailback rotation, but he could be a candidate for special teams, especially the return spots. Something to keep in mind: Redshirting tailbacks, especially highly touted ones, doesn’t make sense in the long run as they rarely stick around for five years.
Recruiting aside (as that seems to be well in hand), if you had to put your finger on the one most critical areas/issues during the Richt era that needed to be addressed by Kirby, what would it be, and how would you grade Kirby on it so far? — Joey, Argentina
Well, the offense was what was Richt’s undoing, and that’s obviously a work in progress. But ultimately I’d say the biggest criticism that influential people had about Georgia under Richt was the eye test I talked about earlier, in this way: attention to detail, not showing enough on-field discipline every week, and avoiding the one or two embarrassing losses every season. … Obviously, much like the offense, that hasn’t yet improved under Smart. We’ll see how Year 2 goes.
What do you think about getting a dedicated QB coach? Mark Richt and Mike Bobo were probably the best QB coaches in the country — maybe get one of their old QBs like Aaron Murray? — Matt, Brisbane, Australia
That’s an interesting idea: Have a dedicated QB coach, and have the offensive coordinator/play-caller be an overall observer at practice. I don’t have anything to indicate that Smart will try that, but we’ll see how the season goes. That’s Smart’s strategy right now for the 10th assistant job: See how the season goes, evaluate his current staff, and see who’s available. He’s going to be flexible, in the same way that he didn’t exactly set out to hire a special teams coordinator, but it worked out that Shane Beamer was available and the staff roles fit.
Seth, is there any chance that the Dawgs and Bama would play each other twice this 2017 season with them playing one another in the SEC championship game and then possibly a second time in the playoffs? Is that in anyway possible? – Frank Marx
Well, there’s optimism, and then there’s … I’ll bite: It would take a lot of losing by teams in other conferences for the loser of the SEC championship game to be one of the four teams in the playoff. The reason there was an Alabama-LSU rematch in 2011 — and I’m still of the mind there shouldn’t have been, but that’s a whole other blog — was that the teams met in the regular season, LSU won the division and beat Georgia in the SEC championship game, while Alabama sat it out. I guess I could foresee a scenario where the champion of both divisions are 12-0 or 11-1, and the game is so close and there aren’t enough other deserving teams out there.
But remember back in 2012, that after Georgia barely lost to Alabama in the SEC title game, it was Florida and not Georgia that got a BCS bowl bid. And back then I was of the opinion that was wrong too.
As a lifelong Georgia fan I am encouraged by the direction of the team. However, for the life of me I do not understand how our offensive coordinator is going to take us the next level. I was confused by the play calling (of) Mike Bobo at times but he was head and shoulders above what we have now. Is it too late to bring him back?? We have lots of talent on the offensive side of the ball but we are not game planning to use that talent effectively. I would like to hear your opinion. — Joseph Seal
This is an important year for Chaney, and I think he knows that. He’s said the right things, and the signs this spring were that he was taking to hear his own words about freshening up the offense. But ultimately the proof will be when he calls plays, has to adjust the game plan on the fly, etc.
Would love to hear more about Scott Sinclair… I know you can’t interview him, but I’m sure u could talk to former players, people he worked with in the past.. what is his philosophy? What makes him unique? What interesting techniques does he use? I watch bama and those kids are grown men on the line and at lb.. a lot of that is their strength coach, who I read in past, sends players videos of Muhammad Ali fights before workouts.. etc.. — Matt McCarty
Good question, Matt. Still hoping against hope to someday interview him … because to be honest, while you CAN do stories on people without talking to them, and we’ve done that with some people, writing stories about people without talking to them takes about 10 times the work, because you have to talk to a bunch of other people to get something close to the full story. And when you’re a beat writer, you just don’t have that kind of time.
But a story on Sinclair, with or without him, is something I hope to get to this season. Maybe even in the preseason.
Hi Seth – this is a minor fashion statement but I’m not a fan of the uniform jersey with the wide collar stripes. When did UGA switch to this jersey style? — Michael
Note: Originally I pleaded ignorance on this, but very quickly a helpful reader (former student athletic board member Ryan Scates) sent in some info: Georgia switched to the black collar stripes in 2013, but is switching this year to a look where the collar stripe isn’t as wide. The biggest aesthetic change, per Scates, is the “V” collar. Photographic evidence:
HEY, A BASKETBALL QUESTION!
I read the letter that the former UGA letterman wrote and while I agreed with some of the points, I didn’t agree with others. One problem I have is when fans blanketly state we need to replace Mark Fox with a coach that can quote “recruit better”. I do agree that UGA basketball has probably underachieved in recent years. While I’m only 24 years old, I do remember where UGA basketball was before Fox was hired. I’m always of the opinion that a coach shouldn’t be fired unless you already have his replacement in mind or at the very least a short list. I believe it was so easy for UGA to make the decision to move on from Mark Richt because Kirby Smart was the supposed “obvious” replacement. I think Mark Fox has done a great job here and will have left this program in a much better state than which he found it. However, I’m not so sure that it would be prudent for UGA to move on from Mark Fox when there are no obvious names or an easy, go-to short list. Unless you’re getting a guy like Gregg Marshall to replace him, I don’t (think) it’s a risk worth taking. That last thing UGA basketball needs is to go backwards. Obviously firing a coach is always a risk but personally I don’t think it’s one worth taking. I was a big fan of the Seth & Gentry Show because you guys talked a little basketball; so, I’d love to get your opinion on my “take”. — Andre A., Atlanta
Andre, quite honestly, I can’t really disagree with anything you say. Many fans don’t want to hear that, but firing Mark Fox in order to just hire the best replacement they can get is fraught with risk. Georgia won’t just have good coaches lining up to interview. I’m sorry, it just won’t — not in basketball at least.
Let’s see how this next season plays out. Fox does have the program on sound footing, but I think he knows he needs to take the next step. Getting back in the tournament this year should be enough, but fans want more, and that’s also understandable.
AND FINALLY …
So many sports fans get agitated and irked when you sportswriters say something they don’t like about their team. What is the one thing you’d most like to tell UGA fans even though you know they don’t want to hear it? — Levander, via DawgNation forum
Well this is a dangerous way for me to try to finish. Thanks!
I had to search hard before answering this, because frankly I think I’ve been pretty honest with my readership and unafraid of blowback. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I kept stuff in reserve. But I’ll go with this:
The book should still be very much out on Kirby Smart and his staff as far as coaching and developing players. When Smart put together his staff, there seemed to be a particular emphasis on recruiting, and that was borne out in the 2017 class, which was fantastic. (And I wouldn’t give up on 2018 either.) But I’ve always wondered whether too many people were underrating the importance of coaching and developing players. Tony Ball, for instance, wasn’t known as a great recruiter when he was at Georgia, but, boy, could he coach up his receivers, such as 3-star recruits Chris Conley and Michael Bennett. Smart and his staff are proving to be great recruiters. But I still truly believe that’s only half the battle. Let’s see about the rest.