Tennessee won a game Saturday, but, in addition to losing its best player, Georgia probably lost a season. Or, at least, the season the Bulldog Nation had hoped for.
While the humiliating loss to Bama may have exposed the Bulldogs as an overranked pretender in the land of the College Football Playoff, the slipshod loss to an improving but still flawed Vols team in Knoxville has revealed a harder truth:
Nick Chubb aside, the 2015 Dawgs weren’t a great team to start with, and, with the demoralizing season-ending injury suffered by Chubb, they look now like, at best, an average team. Before the season, I predicted a 10-2 record for the Dawgs, but this now looks to me like a team that is much more likely to wind up 8-4 or even 7-5.
I know, I know, Georgia theoretically still can win out and, assuming Florida and Tennessee both pick up another conference loss, the Dawgs can take the SEC East. But, really, does this look to anyone who watched the past two games like a team that should be playing for the SEC Championship?
Let’s run down some of the reasons why the answer to that question should be a resounding “No!” (and why Georgia ended up blowing a 21-point lead and losing to Tennessee). Some of these have been apparent for a while, and others have only reared their head since the Dawgs got into the meat of their schedule:
First, a popular meme with fans and sportswriters alike in the preseason was the rebuilding of Georgia’s defense under Jeremy Pruitt. But that rebuilding seems to have slowed like a Buckhead development in the depths of the recession this season. Yes, the Dawgs are very young on defense, but we’re not seeing much progress. Georgia let the Vols run 90 offensive plays Saturday, hold the ball 34 minutes and rack up twice as many first downs. And, once again, in a tip of the cap to series history, a Tennessee quarterback had a career day against the Dawgs.
Opponents know that Georgia’s zone defense tends to leave receivers wide open in the middle of the field, and Pruitt so far hasn’t been able to make midgame or even game-to-game adjustments. And whatever happened to that awesome pass rush?
Also, the tackling on Vols running plays Saturday was atrocious. I don’t know whether the Dawgs have been thudding too much instead of tackling live in practice, but it certainly looks like they badly need to get back to fundamentals if they’re going to cut down on opponents’ yards after contact.
Finally, the defense had a hard time getting off the field on third and fourth down against the Vols. Combine that with the offense going three-and-out too many times, particularly early in the game, and you wind up with another opponent dominating in terms of number of plays and time of possession.
Georgia’s offense under Brian Schottenheimer has been anemic against any defense that isn’t horrible, and that was the case even before Chubb went down. Third-down conversion rate the past two weeks has been terrible.
Transfer quarterback Greyson Lambert still looks very tentative and, frankly, scared in the pocket much of the time. He tends to stare down his primary receiver and, when that guy ends up covered, hurries his check-down throw. The word is out on the Dawgs: Load up the front to slow the run and play tight on the receivers (something South Carolina failed to do, which allowed Lambert to look like a passing phenom for one day).
I’m not sure you can say the veteran offensive line has underperformed so far this year, but they certainly haven’t excelled. They’ve been giving Lambert pretty good protection, but have had a hard time opening holes for the running game, what with everyone crowding the box.
Georgia’s receivers have had a hard time getting open, which isn’t doing any favors for Lambert (who isn’t capable of buying time like Aaron Murray was). But Malcolm Mitchell made a couple of impressive catches Saturday and Reggie Davis made one and dropped one that he should have had. (I can’t really fault Davis, though, since he scored twice against the Vols. Likewise, Sony Michel, who fumbled on a kickoff return but had some big runs after taking over for the injured Chubb.)
Another factor in Georgia’s offensive woes: Schotty’s playcalling, especially in the running game, has been awfully predictable and was again in Knoxville, too often meaning a run up the middle. Lambert got off to another slow start but showed in the second half he does have the arm to burn opponents with long pass plays. But Georgia’s offensive coordinator still seems unsure when and where to call those passes. Third-and-4 at the Vols’ 24-yard line in the second quarter should have been two-down running territory. Instead, Georgia bucked the odds, whiffing on a long pass play, and then missed a field goal.
Speaking of which, special teams continue to be horrible, with the occasional outlier like Davis’ 70-yard punt return Saturday, but it’s Georgia under Mark Richt, so what else is new?
While on the subject of coaches, Georgia’s sideline Saturday appeared to be a hot mess. Too many times, the Dawgs got caught (or had to call a timeout not to get caught) with 12 men on the field. The last time, on the final drive, even the normally unflappable Richt was ripping off his headset and throwing it, Steve Spurrier-style, in frustration.
Overall, it was a sloppy performance by a Georgia team that still appears to have some gaping holes, talentwise.
One last point on the game: Kudos to CBS for declining to show the stomach-turning replay of Chubb’s leg bending the way legs weren’t meant to bend more than once. But, I could have done with a few less sideline shots of the injured player, too, especially early on when he was suffering so physically and mentally. Seeing a kid crying tears of pain and frustration like that was really tough to watch.
MIDSEASON REPORT CARD
So, we’re six games into the season now, with Georgia 4-2, 2-2 in conference play. Let’s step back a bit from the Knoxville loss to see how the 2015 Dawgs grade out at this point:
Offense: C+. That’s taking into account the games where Chubb was ripping off long runs and Lambert was making lots of short passes. Without Chubb, as I said before, this is a very average team, despite still having another great back in Michel and an ace receiver in Mitchell. Unless the light bulb comes on soon for Lambert and Schottenheimer, this could be a Music City Bowl kind of season.
Defense: C-. If the Georgia D was a newborn going in for his first checkup, the doctor would be saying something about “failure to thrive.” How well (or whether) Pruitt is able to turn things around will have a lot to do with how Georgia finishes the season.
Special teams: D. This would be a failing grade if it weren’t for the odd successful return here and there. Marshall Morgan still can’t consistently put kickoffs in the end zone (or, worse, is told not to) and is spotty with field goals. Collin Barber, even with his new rugby style, continues to be a liability as a punter. A couple of favorable rolls may have padded his average Saturday, but he’s good for about one shank every game, and he doesn’t know how to pooch punt when it’s time to try and pin an opponent deep in their own territory.
Coaching: D. It’s one thing to get outcoached by Nick Saban, but Butch Jones??!! Georgia still doesn’t appear able to get up for big games, and the offensive and defensive coordinators have not been impressive so far this season.
Overall grade: C-. Like I said, an average team at best.
VIEW FROM THE OTHER SIDE
A few Vols fans might have shown their posteriors on social media Saturday with their crude comments about the Chubb injury, but every fandom has its classless jerks, including our own. And my favorite Vols fan, former colleague Joey Ledford, has long been a classy, good-humored presence on the Blawg. Because of the graciousness he showed during Georgia’s five-game winning streak in the series, I offered Joey a chance to give us his view of Saturday’s game. Take it away, Joey …
I could beat our collective orange chests and taunt or troll you, but I’m not that kind of fan. I feel your pain, and I know a lot of your fans are now gunning for your coach’s head. If I was that kind of fan, I’d say, “Yeah, fire that underachiever!” Do that, and you’ll march off into the wilderness like we did when we fired our Hall of Fame coach, Phil Fulmer, and like you did when your Hall of Fame coach, Vince Dooley, retired. Firing a coach is risky business, and very few athletic directors have the magic touch to perfectly replace them. You have a Hall of Famer in his own right on the sidelines. Let him be.
You lost to a rising power, a very young team that is recruiting as well as Georgia and is just now learning how to win. We’ve lost three games, but we blew 13 or 14 point leads in each of those. We had Oklahoma beat and blew it in the fourth quarter. Same sad story with Florida. Arkansas wore us down with the biggest offensive line in all of football, including the NFL. You lost to a QB who threw for 300 yards plus and rushed for more than 100. Only three QBs have done that in the last 20 years and one was named Manziel and the other was named Winston. And junior Joshua Dobbs of Alpharetta has now done it twice.
It was a great game and I applaud your effort. The Vol Nation also wishes Nick Chubb, a truly magnificent player, a speedy recovery. We all regret his untimely injury. Good luck the rest of the season. I feel your pain in a special way because my daughter and son in law are UGA grads and even though my blood is orange, some of the blood I’ve passed to the next generation is red.
Thanks, Joey. Gracious, as always.
I also wanted to take a quick dip into the Junkyard Mail for this excerpt from note sent by a UGA fan who goes by Bear:
Just wondering what your thoughts are after Georgia gave away a game that they looked to have in control at 24-3 until they gave up 14 points in 37 seconds just before half time. Are you ready to throw in the towel on Mark Richt like Mark Bradley did last week? With Nick Chubb out for the season and possibly part of next season, Richt’s notorious inability to build a fire in the Dogs’ bellies, a second-rate quarterback, Schottenheimer’s up-the-gut playcalling and a defense that can’t seem to tackle, we’ll be lucky to get back to the Belk Bowl. Next week is probably a loss and the Florida game is gone, in my humble opinion. I would like to know what you think.
As I said at the start of this Blawg, Bear, I don’t think this team looks like a championship contender. (I’m not sure they ever should have been viewed as one, considering the quarterback situation.) But I don’t believe Richt’s job is in jeopardy yet. One of the nation’s top QB prospects is headed to Athens next season, along with some other top talent, and this is a pretty young team, particularly on defense. So, I don’t think Greg McGarity will be quick on the trigger, even if this season bottoms out. Now, whether I still think Richt can break through the ceiling that apparently has reimposed itself over the Georgia program, well, I’m reserving judgment on that for now. But I’m hearing from a number of ardent, longtime Dawgs fans who are increasingly skeptical on that point.
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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.