ATHENS — We’ve reached the midpoint of the season, which means we should have a pretty good idea about what we have in the 2016 Georgia Bulldogs. And I feel like I do: A pretty average football team, by UGA standards anyway.
Now their story isn’t written. There are still six regular-season games to be played and a lot can happen therein, good and bad. But we knew coming in that the Bulldogs (4-2, 2-2 SEC) had a front-loaded schedule that would largely dictate where they were headed in terms of being championship contenders. And while the door is not completely closed on that, it’s going to be out of Georgia’s hands now beyond taking care of its own business.
Even if the Bulldogs win out, they’ll need Tennessee to lose three SEC games. That’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibility. The ninth-ranked Vols (5-1, 2-1) are predicted to suffer their second defeat this Saturday against No. 1-ranked Alabama (6-0, 3-0). But even if they do, UT will be heavy favorites in their last four against the Least in the East: South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt.
As for Georgia, second-half success or failure boils down to three games: Florida in Jacksonville on Oct. 29, Auburn in Athens on Nov. 12 and Georgia Tech in Athens on Nov. 26. Even putting aside the SEC ramifications, those are the games that matter most to the Bulldog Nation. Win all three and they’ll still throw new coach Kirby Smart a parade. Lose one or two and there will be a lot of grousing about Georgia being the same old Georgia.
As for the narrative that Smart is putting out, that getting the Bulldogs’ football program turned around is “like turning around a battleship,” I buy that, but not in the way you might think.
Battleships aren’t that hard to turn around. According to the worldofwarships.com, the “tactical diameter” — amount of time it takes to turn 180 degrees while at combat speed — of a modern-day battleship is about 72 seconds covering 790 yards, or roughly eight football fields. And neither should it be that difficult to turn around a battle-tested program that won 20 games the last two seasons and averaged nearly 10-a-season for the last the last 15.
That said, the 2016 Bulldogs could be right on schedule. They’re in position to do what they’ve always done this season — that is, to win nine or 10 but few of the ones of significance — while the goal is to do what they haven’t, which is win a championship. Showing second-half progress might be an indication Georgia is but a year or two away.
Meanwhile, most of the questions going into the season have been positively answered. Namely:
- yes, tailback Nick Chubb was able to play early and at or near the level he did before his knee injury;
- yes, Sony Michel recovered from his July ATV accident in time to contribute early;
- yes, Jacob Eason beat out Greyson Lambert to become the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback;
- yes, Tyler Catalina can come in and start at left tackle.
Of course, some of those come with asterisks. And the answer to whether the Bulldogs could field a decent kicking game without a scholarship place-kicker on the roster is a resounding “no.”
But enough of precursors. Let’s get down to specific grades. As always, please let me know in the comments section if you agree or disagree and what grades you might assign. Again, no pluses or minuses here, we’re grading on a 4.0 scale:
Georgia’s offense is the epitome of average. The Bulldogs have been both unspectacular and inconsistent. Early on they looked like a run-oriented team, with Chubb bursting out of the gate with 222 against North Carolina in the opener and Georgia running the football 65 percent of the time in the first two games. But then the going got tough against stacked fronts and the Bulldogs had to pass to win against Missouri and did neither particular well against Ole Miss and Tennessee. Georgia appeared to go back to its power running game against South Carolina, producing two 100-yard rushers and 326 yards on the ground. Meanwhile, Eason had a bad day throwing the ball (5-for-17, 29 yards) and has been slow to develop in terms of accuracy and reading defenses. Pass protection remains shaky. The Bulldogs are next-to-last in the league in sacks allowed (16) after finishing last season second. Their overall place in the SEC statistics tell the story: 5th in rushing (215.7 ypg), 11th in passing (184.2), 10th in total offense (399.8) and 9th in scoring (26.7 ppg)
It’s not until taking a deep statistical dive into the defense that it’s evident that the Bulldogs have have regressed on that side of the football. Georgia has made precipitous drops in several important statistical categories, including scoring defense (from 3rd to 12th), in pass defense (from 1st to 13th), in pass efficiency defense (from 1st to last), and red-zone defense (from 1st to last). Now the Bulldogs weren’t helped by having to face four of the nation’s most prolific offenses in the first half in North Carolina, Ole Miss and Tennessee. But all that should be balanced out by the second-half competition, none of which would be described as having an explosive offenses. Georgia’s definitely suffering from youth on the defensive line — 10 of the 11 playing are underclassmen — and there has been some drop off from outside linebackers Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins to Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter. But what the Bulldogs have lacked in brick-wall defense, they’ve made up for with big-play ability. Only Texas A&M (17) has recorded more takeaways than Georgia (15), and it is tied with Alabama for third in the SEC in turnover margin (plus-5)
SPECIAL TEAMS: D
Give the Dogs a D for disastrous. The only thing keeping this from being a failing grade is there is more to special teams than just kicking. Terry Godwin gave the Bulldogs their first special-teams touchdown this past weekend with a 43-yard return of an onsides kick against South Carolina. And nationally Georgia is a respectable 39th in kickoff returns, 46th in punt returns and 55th in punt coverage. But the Bulldogs are off the map with regard to kicking the football. They’re last in the SEC in field goals (4-of-9) and their inability to make even mid-range field goals has negatively impacted every aspect of their offensive operation. Freshman punter Marshall Long has also struggled with consistency and hang time. That’s why ESPN’s overall special-teams rating system places Georgia 126th, or third from worst in the country. That’s actually one spot up from a week ago.
Nobody can question Kirby Smart’s work ethic or motivation. The man has energy and passion to burn. He does more in a day than most people do in a week and a half. He’s a relentless recruiter. He was born and bred to coach, raised by a high school coach and trained under some of the best in the business, including Nick Saban for the previous nine years. But he’s also working as head coach for the first time in his life, at any level, and that has bled through a couple of times this season. Nowhere was that more evident than at the end of the first half against South Carolina this past weekend. He let the first-half clock tick away with his team at the opponents’ 29-yard line and two timeouts in his pocket. But clock management is a learned discipline that most first-year coaches struggle with. And right now, he’s paying almost no attention to the offense. That’s being left completely coordinator Jim Chaney. In time, Smart may need to step in and say, “let’s be conservative here and be sure to get some points out of this possession.” With Georgia struggling to some degree in all three phases of the game, and having dropped two of three high-profile games in the first half, high marks just aren’t in the cards here.
“C” represents average, and average is what comes to mind when you think of this Georgia team. They can be pretty good at times and pretty bad at times. Trying to think of one thing the Bulldogs’ do really well is problematic. At times they’ve run the ball well, but others they haven’t. They’ve hit on a couple of a long balls and thrown a game-winner, but also struggle to complete check-downs and other high-percentage routes. They get their hands on the football defensively, but also have allowed an SEC worst 11 TD passes and struggle to pressure the quarterback. They can’t kick a lick. In short, they look like they can beat anybody (ie: No. 9 Tennessee) or lose to anybody (ie: FCS’s Nicholls State). But overall its a young group with room for growth and a schedule to show it against. It needs to. To be continued …