Dawgs and fans must adapt to college football’s changing times
You think college football has seen a lot of change over the past couple of years?
Get ready for even more disruptions to the time-honored way of doing things, especially in the SEC.
An ancient Greek philosopher named Heraclitus once observed that there is nothing permanent except change, and it seems that the “It Just Means More” conference is making that its new slogan.
That also goes for the Georgia Bulldogs, who have thrived, so far, in an age of change, winning two consecutive national titles despite the arrival of the transfer portal and NIL.
Some of the new wrinkles the Dawgs and their fans are facing are incremental, organic changes — players graduating or moving on, and subtractions/additions involving the coaching staff.
Those probably are the easier ones for fans to accept, because that’s the way it always has been in college football. You might shed a few tears, like Kirby Smart’s 10-year-old son, Andrew, did over the departure of Stetson Bennett, who’d been in Athens for what seemed like forever. Still, you expect such a change.
Ditto Georgia’s ultra-successful offensive coordinator for the past three seasons, Todd Monken, leaving for an NFL job. We hoped he’d stick around Athens until he retired, but, considering Monken’s self-described “vagabond” ways, that always was a long shot.
Smart knew that, of course, which is why Georgia announced Monken’s replacement about a half-hour after the Ravens announced they’d hired Georgia’s OC.
The Georgia head coach’s choice — former UGA quarterback and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo — wasn’t much of a surprise, since Smart hired his old teammate last year as an offensive analyst. The same was done on defense a while back, with another of Smart’s former teammates, Will Muschamp, being hired as an analyst before moving on up to co-defensive coordinator.
Having someone already on the offensive staff take over as coordinator should make it easier for Georgia’s players, who won’t have to learn an entirely new system and terminology.
Of course, Smart’s choice for Monken’s replacement has produced groans from a vocal contingent of Bulldog Nation that apparently didn’t notice how Bobo grew in the job when he had it a few years back under Mark Richt, or how his last offense at Georgia in 2014 was the school’s highest-scoring ever (yes, topping even this past season’s Monken-coached national champs), averaging 41.7 points per game. Also, three of the top five seasons for average yards per game in history for the Bulldogs came under Bobo.
The main problem with Richt teams toward the end of Bobo’s first stint in Athens was defense, not the ability of the Dawgs’ offense to score points.
Part of the fan malaise over the Bobo promotion no doubt is tied to his relative lack of success after he left Georgia for the head coaching job at Colorado State, followed by a couple of seasons leading the offenses at South Carolina and Auburn.
But, at those schools, Bobo never had players of the caliber that he’ll have at Georgia.
Others mistakenly see Bobo as a relic from Georgia’s run-first past. In actuality, with the exception of when he had Todd Gurley, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel in the backfield, Bobo ran a diversified offense that valued the pass as much as the run. He constantly was preaching “balance,” much to the dismay of the run-the-damn-ball crowd.
Also, in his last three seasons as UGA’s OC under Richt, he introduced elements of the spread into what previously was a pretty standard pro-style offense, along with other occasional elements, such as going no-huddle and using the pistol formation.
As I wrote back in 2014, I think those last three years that he ran Georgia’s offense are when Bobo came into his own as an offensive coordinator and signal caller. He also was one of UGA’s top recruiters.
My only holdover reservations about Bobo involve situational play-calling and taking what a defense gives you, but he did improve in those areas. He also could be a little streaky, sometimes opening games with aggressive play-calling, and then getting ultra conservative — but Monken also was guilty of that at times over the past three years.
Aaron Murray, who was a record-setting QB under Bobo, is a fan of the move. “He’s a coordinator who had a ton of success here at Georgia,” Murray said, “someone who spent a year in this offense and can make sure that the transition is as seamless as possible for these kids and be ready to go in the spring.”
Overall, I’m optimistic, because of Bobo’s past showing at UGA, and the year he spent working with Monken, who credited him with a lot of the preparation for LSU in this year’s SEC Championship Game — which Georgia won by 20 points.
Speaking of a possible Monken influence on his successor, I am hoping we see a lot more use of tight ends than Bobo showed us previously. But, considering the presence of Brock Bowers and the nation’s premier corps of TEs on the Dawgs’ roster — and his close-up view of what Monken accomplished with two-tight-end sets over the past season — it seems reasonable to assume that Bobo won’t fail to make use of that particular superweapon in the UGA arsenal.
The biggest difference for Bobo from his previous stint at UGA will be this: He won’t have to worry about shootouts with everyone, because the Dawgs have a defense now.
In the meantime, other changes coming to SEC football could be more disruptive than a new offensive coordinator. The recent news that Texas and Oklahoma will join the SEC a year earlier than expected — in 2024, the same year the College Football Playoff expands to 12 teams — means the coming season almost assuredly will be the last for the SEC East and SEC West, as a wholesale reworking of the conference schedule looms.
A final decision hasn’t been announced yet on how the 16-team SEC will be configured, but the betting money is on no divisions, with the two top teams meeting in the championship game.
And, while some of the lower-tier schools still would like to stick with an eight-game schedule (with only one permanent opponent), it’s expected that the conference will go with a nine-game schedule, with each team having three permanent opponents and rotating through the six others. That way, every school in the conference will play every other team at least once every two years, which will please TV partner ESPN.
(The early proposal to divide the conference into four four-team pods, with a team having to play all its pod-mates every year, similar to a division, appears to have lost support — especially from Commissioner Greg Sankey.)
Smart is a fan of the nine-game conference schedule. “We’ve been very aggressive in terms of scheduling opponents out in the future that make great matchups, because we want the University of Georgia to play in big games,” Smart said last spring. “So, whether that’s another SEC opponent, or another Power 5 opponent, that excites our fan base and attracts our fan base.”
Assuming the nine-game conference schedule is a done deal, the biggest question facing SEC leaders is picking each team’s three permanent opponents (a decision that is rumored already to have been made, though it hasn’t been announced).
Of course, the schedule realignment will lead to some rivalries no longer being played annually, but most of the major ones can be accommodated by a 3-6 schedule, whereas sticking with eight conference games would mean more of the so-called “secondary” rivalries not being played annually.
And, under the 3-6 configuration, just about everyone who covers the SEC believes that Florida and Auburn will be two of Georgia’s three permanent rivals. The question is which team will be the third.
While there is some fan support for Tennessee, every projected lineup I’ve seen has gone with South Carolina as UGA’s third opponent — in part, because the two schools have been playing each other a lot longer than Georgia and UT, and also because South Carolina considers Georgia to be its second-biggest rival (after in-state Clemson of the ACC). And, in a recent poll conducted by the Athletic, South Carolina was by far the choice of fans, too.
With the Dawgs rotating through the conference every two years (and no longer locked into playing Vanderbilt every year) those fans buying tickets for Sanford Stadium games will see much more enticing schedules. (For an example of just how unenticing a schedule can be, check out three of Georgia’s first four games for 2023, featuring UT Martin, Ball State and UAB.)
Another plus of the nine-game schedule will be the elimination of one of the nonconference spots usually reserved for a cupcake opponent that draws yawns from fans. Georgia naturally will play Tech for one of its three nonconference games, and Smart is on record as wanting a top-tier Power 5 opponent for another spot in as many seasons as possible. That will leave one game open for the directional schools and the occasional FCS team.
Of course, it’s not just major changes, like conference realignment, that Georgia fans are facing. Other less dramatic (but, to some, no less unsettling) changes are headed our way.
And, those changes could alter or even eliminate some beloved traditions.
For instance, quite a few SEC observers wonder whether the Georgia-Florida game being played annually in Jacksonville will survive all of this change. As I’ve noted here before, many fans love that game being played in Jacksonville, with a 50-50 crowd split at a sort-of neutral site, and it does make the game more of an event (which is why it’s a lock for a top TV slot every year).
However, the time may be coming soon when the two schools (mainly Georgia, prodded by recruiting-conscious Smart) will want to go to a home-and-home arrangement — or perhaps a four-year rotation, going something like this: Athens, Jacksonville, Gainesville, Jacksonville, and so on.
It’s notable that a new deal with Jacksonville hasn’t been signed yet, with the current one running through the 2023 season, plus a two-year option that might extend the contract through 2025.
A more pedestrian change (literally) facing Dawgs fans involves the Sanford Drive bridge being incorporated into the stadium on game days, due to the renovation project that will see upgrades made to the stadium’s southside. Since that portion of Sanford Drive already is closed to vehicular traffic on game days, it’s a major walking thoroughfare that would be lost to fans, as I discussed last year.
That not only will end the chance for the unticketed to walk across the span on Saturdays (or watch the game for free from the bridge), but it also will inconvenience many ticketed fans who approach the stadium from the south, but sit on the north, or vice versa.
In addition, some fans who bring their kids to the bridge to view the pre-game Dawg Walk down below have been fretting the loss of that opportunity.
I think there’s a good chance, though, that the Dawg Walk itself could end up moving. We might have had a glimpse of the future of that tradition prior to January’s national championship celebration, when players left their buses at the corner of Baxter and Lumpkin streets and proceeded up the walkway in front of the Miller Learning Center and the UGA Bookstore before entering the stadium, as opposed to trekking through the Tate Center parking lot as has been done in the past.
So, yeah, there’s a lot of change ahead for Dawgs fans. However, as long as Georgia remains a destination for many of the best players in the country — and, with Smart as head coach, that’s likely to remain the case — I have a feeling we’ll somehow manage to adapt.
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