ATHENS — Georgia’s special teams malfunction of late is a reminder of a baseball lament of yesteryear. When Georgia native George Tweedy Stallings, who led the miracle Boston Braves from last place in the National League in 1914 to the World Series title, was an old man at 61, his doctor asked why he had such a bad heart, Stallings replied, “Bases on balls, doc; those damned bases on balls.”
Special team mistakes, like bases on balls, give coaches heart disease. Give a man a free pass in baseball and it can come back to haunt you. Same with special teams. Two mistakes in the kicking game versus Vanderbilt, a team with a top notch defense that few seemed to respect pre-game, did in Georgia Saturday.
There were other grievous shortcomings, but mental mistakes are football’s bases on balls.
At mid-point of the season, or just past it, the analysts grading Georgia are passing out failing grades. The conclusion here is that the Bulldogs are better than they have performed, a reminder that it takes time to bring about a collection of competitive personnel and it takes time to get everybody on the same page. Progress sometimes is not easy to see.
Playing at noon is good when you win, but it can spoil the social scene if there are regrets. People gather afterward, and the second guessing begins. Kirby Smart, the ambitious Bulldog coach with hoarseness in his voice, brought about by constant vocalizing of encouragement for 60 minutes, keeps reminding his team not to point fingers but find a way for improvement in performance and eliminate mental errors.
Fans, however, won’t give the team a free pass on that. They will find plenty wrong. They will point fingers because of impatience and anxiousness. That is to be expected. My friends stopped by after the game with Georgia’s shortcomings on their mind. In those situations, you take the high road.
“We gotta give Kirby, time … but …” they complain. You know how the sentence ends; you know the rest of the story.
However, I believe in Kirby and believe in his coaching staff. They will do some fixing but it is obvious that the EITB factor (eight in the box) means that a defensive coordinator who is not talent-rich can, nonetheless, make it hard for you. “We know you can’t knock us off the ball, so let your freshman QB beat us slinging the ball if he can.”
The good news is that a lot of freshmen are playing and gaining experience.
A lot of freshmen will be playing next year. Seasoning, so vital to success, will come but not with alacrity and dispatch. If you are in it for the long haul, you can come sit over here with the “believers.”
If you use Alabama as a barometer, and everybody does, let’s start with the fact that Nick Saban’s first year in Tuscaloosa, his team lost its last four games (lost to Georgia at home earlier in the year 26-23 in overtime, by the way, to a Matthew Stafford TD pass to Mikey Henderson) and finished 7-6.
You don’t think there weren’t any doomsayers at the end of the season at the Capstone?
Saban recruited very well from the start. The talk about Kirby’s commitments forthcoming should encourage the “Doubting Thomases.” Recruiting is evaluation and closure. Kirby was good at that when he was Saban’s defensive coordinator. He aspires to follow suit in Athens.
If you watched Bama’s game with Tennessee, you felt that you were watching Stradivarius on the violin, hearing Caruso sing, watching reruns of the Lombardi Packers.
Freshman don’t play very often at Alabama, except in minor-getting-some-experience roles. Georgia has started, at least five freshmen, at some point during this season and as many as 14 have seen action at one point or another.
Tennessee this year was supposed to be the most competitive they have been under Butch Jones. They were a beat up team after their slugfest in College Station, but 49-10!
Saban keeps up — with everything. He brought Lane Kiffin in to add some sauce to his offense, but he remains an advocate of the fundamental concept of blocking and tackling as the determining factor in winning games and championships.
He has proven that he is the best at evaluating and closing. He recruits depth across the board. You don’t find Saban needing to “recruit extra offensive linemen this year,” and “extra linebackers” next year.
With his depth in talent and his feeder system — playing time as a freshman, maybe co-starter as a sophomore and starter as a junior — or something to that effect, he wins games when his team has an off day.
Playing 12 games, you are going to experience Saturdays when your team will have that sharpness, that edge. On those days, he often has enough reserve strength to fashion victory when other teams are likely to lose when it is close and tight. There is just too much talent out there today to play bad and win — unless you are Alabama.
Football is fun when the offense is fluid, the defense opportunistic and unyielding. Compare Alabama’s personnel to Georgia’s, and even if you have never seen a pair of shoulder pads, you know who has the supreme advantage.
When Mal Moore, the athletic director who hired Saban, was asked by Tennessee’s John Majors, “Is any coach worth $4 million dollars?” Moore replied, “Every penny of it.”
I believe Bulldog fans will feel the same about Kirby Smart some day.
Loran Smith is a writer, UGA track letterman, a former executive secretary of the Georgia Bulldog Club and a longtime employee of the UGA Athletic Association who currently serves in the development office. His columns will appear weekly on DawgNation.