Junkyard Mail: Maybe it’s good for UGA not to be the SEC East favorite

Will Georgia and Tennessee's game be a deciding factor in this year's SEC East battle? (John Kelley / UGA)

UGA’s chances in the SEC East, Georgia’s rebuilding offensive line, the rivalry with Auburn, changes in instant replay officiating and nonconference football scheduling are among the points of discussion showing up in the Junkyard Mail in-box.

Here’s what some Blawg readers are saying …

Danny Brown writes: Bill, I wondered what you think about this year’s predictions for the winner of the SEC East, which for a change aren’t pinning the favorite’s label on our Dawgs. Frankly, considering we’ve been the consensus favorite the past few years and have wound up watching dark horses like Mizzou and Florida take the East, I’m comfortable with Georgia just being in the “also contending” conversation, along with the Gators, behind this year’s media darling, the Tennessee Vols. Especially since Kirby Smart and his staff are dealing with some big questions on offense and defense. What do you think, Bill, is UT for real this year or does Georgia have a chance?

Well, Danny, the Vols are certainly the popular pick among sports media types, including recent predictions from Kirk Herbstreit and Saturday Down South, and on paper Tennessee does look like the favorite in the East. But I’m still not convinced. And I remember all those preseason predictions last year about how great Auburn was going to be. I will say that the Vols have a lot of talent, especially on offense, where some are even going so far as to tab Josh Dobbs as a possible Heisman contender. I do  think the winner of the East will be from the trio of UGA, UT and Florida. And I think the Georgia-Tennessee game may well decide it, if Tennessee comes out on top, while a win over the Vols by the Bulldogs would make the Georgia-Florida game the tacit SEC East title game.

That70sdawg writes: Can the offensive line of leftovers, transfers and freshmen put it together by September under Coach [Sam] Pittman and protect the QB and open big holes?

Could true freshman offensive lineman Ben Cleveland crack the starting lineup this season? (University of Georgia)

That’s one of the two big keys to the 2016 season for the Dawgs, I think, along with the defensive front. It concerns me that Georgia came out of spring practice with the offensive line still unsettled. I’d say it’s a pretty good guess that returnees Isaiah Wynn, Brandon Kublanow and Greg Pyke will be in the mix, but there’s a lot of uncertainty beyond that. Kirby Smart and Pittman have made it clear they don’t have the size up front that they want, and the fact that graduate transfer Tyler Catalina from Rhode Island is widely expected to contend for a starting spot says volumes. A lot of observers also wouldn’t be surprised to see true freshman early enrollee Ben Cleveland getting serious playing time. Especially early on, the OL will be a big question mark. If Pittman hits on the right front five from the start, that will be a big step forward for an offense looking to get back on track this season after last year’s debacle.

Samuel Fleming writes: Hey Bill, I know everyone should be looking forward with the Kirby Smart era, but one of the underplayed stories in the aftermath of the coaching change was that while Mark Richt’s record in Jacksonville was hugely responsible for his being eventually let go, his record vs. Auburn wasn’t as celebrated as much as I thought [it should be], especially coming off an era from 1983-2001 where Auburn routinely beat up on the Bulldogs. I know the record vs. Florida was a black mark against Richt and the Tech rivalry was somewhat responsible for Donnan being fired, but why was Richt’s record in the Deep South’s Oldest rivalry not brought up as to why his tenure in Athens was generally a success?

You’re right that Richt’s Dawgs generally dominated the series with Auburn, but the game in Jacksonville remains the focal point of most seasons and, more than that, the bottom line on the Richt era was the lack of SEC championships post-2005. So handling Auburn most years didn’t really earn Richt the credit it might have had he also been winning titles.

Cliff Custer writes: Bill, what do you make of the SEC’s announcement that it’s going to a “collaborative process” for instant replay in football beginning this season? What exactly does that mean, and what do you expect the result will be?

Basically, Cliff, this “experiment,” as the conference terms it, means additional “officiating experts” operating from SEC headquarters will assist the in-stadium instant replay officials when replay decisions are made. The technology needed to deliver the games in real time to the SEC “video command” was successfully tested during an SEC spring football game in April.

As to what the result will be, well, hopefully we’ll have fewer of those puzzling calls that have left the folks calling the games on TV and fans scratching their heads and wondering if the replay official watched the same replays they just did. But, mostly, I expect what it will mean is more time for ESPN to cram in additional commercials during even lengthier TV timeouts.

Weldon from Athens writes: Bill, with dropping attendance a concern, you and other fans hit it on the head. Have a better schedule if you want to sell more tickets. Personally I’d love if we opened with Clemson every single year. It could only boost your resume if you win and, if you don’t, it’s nonconference and early enough to recover from. I’d also love to see a UGA vs Texas matchup for something new, plus the recruiting aspect you mentioned. [Greg] McGarity and UGA can do all they want to enhance the fan experience, but nothing gives me chills more than being in a packed Sanford Stadium against a great opponent, with so much electricity in the air!  Having Game 1 Clemson, along with our SEC slate, then ending with Tech every year would be great. In addition maybe every few years get the Texas, OSU, Oregon, etc…

Kirby Smart likes opening the season with a strong nonconference opponent. (Emily Selby / UGA)

We’re on the same page when it comes to nonconference scheduling, Weldon! And I was happy to see Kirby Smart likes opening with a major opponent, too, because it not only makes it easier for the players to focus in preseason practice, it gives you good exposure that allows you to expand your recruiting footprint.  Said Smart: “It’s important to me that you play a good nonconference opponent outside of [Georgia] Tech. I think that helps you. When you get to do that, I think it helps your program when you open with a really good team. I’m always in favor of playing somebody [like that] opening. We won’t get a chance to do that every year, we won’t get the venue, but when we get the opportunity, I’m excited to do it.”

A couple of readers have asked whether anything will be done before this season to improve the restrooms at Sanford Stadium and better amplify the Redcoat Band during games. One of them, Jay Unger, writes: A couple of questions about the game day experience. First, any hope in my lifetime (I’m 60) for the level 300 bathrooms? They have been abysmal for years — too small, single-door entry. You miss most of a quarter of play just trying to get into and out of one if the need arises. Secondly, any chance we can hear more from the Redcoat Band and less over-volumized canned music this season? Or at minimum, consider the demographics of those who pay the bills in selecting the playlist? Some hip-hop, OK, I get it. But a steady diet of it? Please throw us baby boomers a bone or two. How ’bout mix in a little country and classic rock as well! Other stadiums in the SEC and beyond do that. Why not us? “Baba O’Riley” (aka “out here in the fields, teenage wasteland”) is cool at the beginning but can only carry you so far. Getting back to the playing field and on a more upbeat note, thrilled about Kirby Smart and what he brings to UGA football. Go Dawgs!

I asked the UGA Athletic Association this week whether there was anything to report on either bathroom renovations or sound improvements and the response was … [crickets]. So I’m not too hopeful on either point for this fall.

Speaking of the stadium, Omar Oliver writes: Hey Bill, there were over 100,000 Dawg Fans at Sanford for G-Day. When will there be serious discussions on UGA being in the 100,000+ club? I personally hope they would expand before Notre Dame comes to Athens in 2019.

Does Sanford Stadium really need expanding? (University of Georgia)

It’s certainly not going to happen before 2019 (stadium expansion takes quite a number of years to get underway).

The last time I heard any discussion of expansion at all was in Michael Adams’ farewell State of the University address in 2013, when he said:

“I will close this item with a plea. The next, and probably last time, that Sanford Stadium is expanded, it should be done on the east end, taking the capacity to 102,000-104,000, which is frankly all that the roads, sidewalks and other infrastructure can handle.

“The west end should remain open. The visible interconnection with and view of the central campus is more than just a pretty scene — it is a powerful statement about the appropriate place of athletics at a great public university.”

Adams was right, and not just because of the aesthetic benefits of the campus view through the west end zone or the logistical limitations. Basically, in the foreseeable future UGA isn’t likely to need more than 102,000 to 104,000 seats — if that many — no matter how successful the football program is, considering the overall attendance problems college football is facing in an era when every game is televised. I frankly would be surprised to see UGA entertaining stadium expansion any time soon — unless the current capacity becomes viewed as some sort of recruiting liability, as was the case with the lack of an indoor practice facility.

IN MEMORIAM: PETE RAJECKI

Finally, I was surprised and saddened this week to hear that Pete Rajecki, Georgia football’s first soccer-style placekicker, died at age 67 in Athens.

Pete Rajecki was UGA’s first soccer-style placekicker. (University of Georgia)

The late Dan Magill dubbed Pete “the Bootin’ Teuton” when Vince Dooley let him start trying kickoffs in 1968. He also was used occasionally for long field goal tries, including a then school-record 54-yarder he made against Mississippi State in 1970.

My memories of Pete go back before he made the football team, however. My family used to go to all the Georgia soccer club team’s games in Athens back when I was young, and a player on the team who particularly caught our eye in 1967 was a blond German who quickly became the star. That was Rajecki.

After his days at UGA, Rajecki, who didn’t speak English when he first arrived at Cobb County’s Sprayberry High School, went on to play a few years in the old World Football League and the NFL, where he scored the first points in Tampa Bay Buccaneers history, according to the Sprayberry hall of fame site.

Loran Smith did a nice write-up on Pete three years ago that you can read here.

My thoughts and prayers are with Pete’s family and friends.

Got something you want to discuss or a question for the Junkyard Blawg? Email me at junkyardblawg@gmail.com.

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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg

Bill King is an Athens native and a graduate of the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. A lifelong Bulldogs fan, he sold programs at Sanford Stadium as a teen and has been a football season ticket holder since leaving school. He has worked at the AJC since college and spent 10 years as the Constitution’s rock music critic before moving into copy editing on the old afternoon Journal. In addition to blogging, he’s now a story editor.

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