It was somewhat surprising to see Georgia jump eight spots to No. 3 in USA Today’s recent post-spring preseason Top 25, despite Kirby Smart’s Dawgs not having had any spring practice.
That leap was based mainly on the program “cementing its quarterback position with Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman,” and what the paper’s Paul Myerberg assumes will be “a different look to an offense run by a new coordinator in Todd Monken.”
As a UGA fan, I like the positive spin, but, really, considering that it’s no longer an eye-opener for a sports story to include the phrase “if and when college football resumes this year,” doing any sort of updated preseason rankings strikes me as a bit oblivious, venturing into Dance Band on the Titanic territory. It’s like they’re ignoring the “elephant” in the room called COVID-19.
The question right now isn’t will Georgia win at least 10 games in the upcoming season, but will Georgia play at least 10 games? And, if they play at all, will those games have any fans in attendance, and will they take place during the 2020 calendar year?
No wonder Smart declined to speculate on the likelihood of college football being played as scheduled this season when he talked with reporters this week.
Meanwhile, the University of Georgia announced that summer semester courses will be continue to be online-only. The fall semester still is scheduled to begin on Aug. 20 with “normal operations,” assuming health conditions allow it.
However, we don’t know how things will stand with the pandemic when it comes time for preseason camps to open in August. If students still aren’t allowed on campus, and preseason drills are delayed, it’s a pretty good guess the start of the season will be pushed back, and the number of games might be cut back (possibly to just conference games).
Among the options reportedly under discussion are starting a shorter season in October, starting in November and splitting it over two semesters, or playing a full season starting next March.
Of course, if they do play this fall, will fans be allowed to attend? The danger presented by mass gatherings is well-established and, in fact, the terrible COVID-19 toll in the Milan, Italy, area was blamed, at least in part, on a major soccer game that took place there in February (dubbed “Game Zero”).
Even if fans are allowed at Sanford Stadium, will they feel comfortable attending? One UGA fan on Facebook this week probably spoke for quite a few when he said: “Can’t sit shoulder to shoulder until there’s a vaccine, not projected until at least early 2021.”
If fans are not allowed, the SEC and other conferences might seek to play the games without a crowd, in order to keep the TV money flowing, using testing on the players to keep out those who are positive for COVID-19. While South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner told the Athletic this week that he could see that happening, other athletic directors don’t believe that is a good look for college football — especially If the schools aren’t allowing students back on campus.
It would be very difficult to justify essentially quarantining unpaid athletes for several months in order to put on TV games. Pro sports might be able to negotiate something like that, but, in the view of many, including columnist Stewart Mandel, “if universities aren’t comfortable re-opening their dorms and libraries come September, then there aren’t going to be college football games. They can’t make the football players stay on campus and practice all week while everyone else is still back home.”
If I had to bet right now, I’d say we might see a curtailed season starting a bit late. But, if we’re still all hunkering down in a couple of months, I think those odds drop to nearly zero.
What I hope to see
Let’s stay optimistic for the time being, though. Assuming the upcoming season happens (whenever), here are some things I’d definitely like to see from the Dawgs’ offense:
• Improved run-blocking on the offensive line. Georgia’s 2019 offense had a lot of problems, but as Smart noted late in the season, they mainly stemmed from an inability to run the ball consistently, and that particularly was true up the middle. Opponents stuffed the box, and the Dawgs’ highly touted OL didn’t seem able to open up many holes. New OL coach in Matt Luke will be in rebuilding mode after Georgia lost several starters, so there are likely to be a couple of new faces on the line, along with returnees like Trey Hill, Ben Cleveland and Jamaree Salyer. At this point, what sort of line the Dawgs will have remains a major question mark.
• One of the younger running backs stepping up. Remember how freshman D’Andre Swift became such a valuable third back behind veterans Nick Chubb and Sony Michel in 2017? The Dawgs need that to happen again, to relieve the likely main tandem of Zamir White and James Cook. It could be sophomore Kenny McIntosh, or it might well be 5-star freshman Kendall Milton. Whoever it is, the Dawgs need a third productive back.
• A turnaround season for Georgia’s wide receivers. With the exception of transfer Lawrence Cager (who’s now gone), the receivers generally were another weak link in the Dawgs’ offense last season. Based on his late-season performances, especially in the Sugar Bowl, exciting rising sophomore George Pickens looks to be a playmaker, but can he turn into as reliable a target as Cager was last year when he was healthy? A successful injury rehab for Dominick Blaylock also would be big, and perhaps Demetris Robertson finally will be more consistent in his senior year. At least one of the incoming freshmen also has a chance to earn major playing time.
• More of a downfield passing threat. While Jake Fromm did a lot of great things in his time at Georgia (most of them were in his first two seasons), he never really developed into much of a threat to throw deep and loosen up defenses. Assuming transfer Newman winds up starting (as most observers expect), that stands a good chance of changing. In addition to being more elusive than Fromm, able to escape pressure in the pocket and run if need be, Newman excelled at throwing the ball downfield while he was at Wake Forest. Since Monken also is known for using the deep ball in his offenses, this is one area that definitely should see improvement — whenever they get to play.
What I hope not to see again
Quite a few UGA alums and fans were dismayed by a tone-deaf tweet posted by the UGA Athletic Association this past week, touting delivery and takeout options for some of its “partner” restaurants.
Although the heading said, “SUPPORT LOCAL,” the outlets listed were all chains, including McDonald’s and Papa John’s. With truly local restaurants in Athens suffering (along with many other local businesses) during the current pandemic, the limiting of the athletic association promotion to just national or regional chains stuck out like a sore thumb.
They caught some blowback from it on Twitter, too.
Tweeted Aaron Johnson: “I would’ve thought a 4-yr university would know the definition of local … kinda disappointed in my school.”
Carol Franklin tweeted: “Umm these restaurants are all chains, nothing local here.”
Another tweet, from Laura Isabel said: “Is this for real??? If I had a small business in Athens right now I would be so offended by this. Zero respect.”
Dr. Janet Frick replied to the UGAA’s tweet with: “Speaking as a former elected member of the athletic board, this is embarrassing. Please publicize and support local Athens businesses. These chains will all be absolutely fine.”
The athletic association promoting takeout from chain outlets, to the exclusion of truly local places, just because they have a business relationship, is indeed disappointing. (And, yes, I realize that some of the chain outlets mentioned in the post may be franchises held by Georgians. Still, as part of a chain, they already have resources that many truly local spots don’t have.)
If the UGAA really wants to “SUPPORT LOCAL,” how about showing some community responsibility and promoting takeout from restaurants that actually are local.
Come on, folks, read the room!