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BOB ANDRES/AJC
First Auburn's band pushed Georgia's offensive line back, and then Auburn's defense did too.

How worrisome is it that Georgia got pushed around?

Welcome to the UGA Mailbag. This week you wanted to know about how Mark Richt’s success should make Georgia fans feel, how next year stacks up for the football, early emerging concerns about the basketball team, if Trenton Thompson is having a disappointing year …

You know, real happy stuff as the holiday season kicks into gear.

But first, of course, we start with another uplifting subject, that being Georgia’s face-plant at Auburn, and what it may or may not foretell about the final stretch:

Did Auburn expose a season-long weakness on our OL and DL or did our young guys just have a bad day?
– John Sapp

That’s really the overriding concern that’s emerged from the Auburn debacle, isn’t it? Well, I’m pretty confident of answering one part of that. Not so much the other.

Georgia’s offensive line was a concern entering the season, so it’s easy to surmise that when it finally met its match, the weakness was exposed. Auburn was by far the best run defense Georgia has faced, now yielding 3.17 yards per attempt, second in the SEC. (Mississippi State is fifth, South Carolina sixth, and after that Georgia had faced four of the SEC’s worst six run defenses.) Notre Dame’s averaging is 3.98, which put it seventh in the SEC, right after South Carolina.)

As for the pass rush, keep in mind that if you break down each of the four sacks, Isaiah Wynn and Lamont Gaillard were the only ones not responsible for any of them. Those were the two returning starters. That would also play into the idea that the O-line had been performing above its head the first nine games.

The D-line troubles are harder to explain. This is a deep and talented unit, and it was just pushed around. Auburn also isn’t on paper the best offensive line Georgia has faced. (That would be Notre Dame.) Talking to Georgia defensive linemen this week, including John Atkins and David Marshall, they attribute the problems to lack of focus, manifesting itself in not having gap control.

Short answer: Georgia’s D-line wasn’t as bad as it looked Saturday. Georgia’s O-line isn’t that bad either, but doesn’t have the same upside and bounce-back potential as the D-line.

I’m not a coach or the son of a coach, so far be it from me to second guess coaches. But if I were going to, I’d ask this: shouldn’t there be a backup plan to get the ball in the hands of your best running backs if the usual scheme of running up the middle isn’t working? It just seems to me that good things might have happened vs. Auburn had we tried screen passes or other short passes to Chubb and Michel to try to get them some room to maneuver.
– Michael Ruffin, Yatesville

Go ahead, second guess, it’s fun! I seriously doubt Jim Chaney’s reaction to the game was: “We had a great plan and I’d do it all over again.” You also hit on what is many people’s chief criticism of the Auburn game: The inability to adjust in game when the main philosophy wasn’t working.

Smart’s explanation on the lack of screen passes was that Auburn and other defenses crowd the box and focus on the tailbacks, which means the backs aren’t open much in the passing game. One way around that is to open up the passing game, but that would have been hard at Auburn with the pass protection being so porous. Another way to try to get screen passes to work is scheme up well: Throw it quickly and have the O-linemen and perimeter blockers set up space well.

Going tempo more would have helped, as it did on the first drive. But you need to move the markers, and Georgia had five 3-and-outs, and not many yards on first down. That gets back to another original criticism: Not passing enough on first down to keep Auburn off-balance, or running creative plays, such as jet sweeps.

Look, Chaney has had a pretty good year up until this game. I’m sure, if we had gotten a chance to talk to him about the game, he would have said they should have adjusted better. After they were able to run the ball nine straight games, they didn’t have a good backup plan for when the run game didn’t work. One suspects that’s been an emphasis in planning meetings this week.

Seth, I surprised myself by not being particularly upset about the Auburn loss. I know our offensive line got dominated. But take away some unforced errors that put our defense back on the field too quickly and I think the game is a toss-up. Am I crazy? Defense would be more fresh, maybe better in the second half. Offense has more chances to score because of that. Not to mention some of the sure thing TD’s that we whiffed on. The game did nothing to hurt our goals if we win out. Auburn is really good. But they didn’t force a lot of the errors that swung the game. I don’t think we can win it all but this team is ahead of schedule and is still a very good team.
– Will Morris

You’re not a crazy homer for having that outlook. But keep in mind that Auburn had double the yardage on Georgia – and that was with UGA getting 74 yards on its final drive. Auburn also had double the yardage in the first half. The Tigers were better in every phase of the game. Here’s the way I’d put it: Avoid a couple or more of those huge gaffes and Georgia is in position to keep it close. But that’s all.

The larger point is absolutely true: Georgia is still a very good team. You can’t throw out what happened the first nine weeks of the year, and whether it’s Auburn or Alabama that UGA faces in the SEC championship game, you give the Bulldogs a puncher’s chance. And win that game and you’re in the playoff. (Assuming you take care of business this week and next.)

Mark Richt
Mark Richt by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Mark Richt went 13-1 in year two and won the SEC along with a win over FSU in a BCS bowl game. Is this a fair expectation for Kirby in year two? “I’m just playing devil’s advocate.” P.S. I’m all in with Kirby.
Joe Moore

There are so many similarities thus far between Richt and Smart’s tenures: Both arrived without any head coaching experience but after being the coordinator for national championship teams. Both won eight games their first year at Georgia. And now Smart is on track for a very similar Year 2. (Richt would have been in the playoff if there had been one.)

The difference, obviously, is Richt inherited a less successful program and his predecessor wasn’t actively coaching another team. It’s really not fair to compare Miami’s success and pin it against Smart; He’s not the one who decided to make this change, and Smart likes and admires Richt.

But if Miami keeps this up, and Georgia doesn’t win the SEC championship, will there be heads exploding in some offices of UGA’s administration? Oh, sure. But this still has a long ways to go this season: Miami and Georgia’s fortunes could still switch.

Or collide.

In typical Georgia fan fashion, I can’t help but look ahead to next year after the Auburn loss. A quick look at the depth chart shows we will most likely be gutted on experience on both sides of the ball (I would argue 7 or 8 lost starters on each side if the talented juniors opt for the draft). Are we at a point in recruiting where we can reload like Alabama or are we stuck waiting faithfully for 2-3 years for another team like this one?
– Rob Rohmiller

I wouldn’t paint that bleak a picture. For one thing, everything is still very much on the table for this year. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun to project ahead, and we definitely can as we get closer to and then into the offseason.

Short version, though: The defense will lose at least five starters (John Atkins, Lorenzo Carter, Davin Bellamy, Aaron Davis and Dominick Sanders), six if you count Malkom Parrish, and Roquan Smith and Trenton Thompson are definitely question marks because of the draft. The offense loses the two best tailbacks, arguably the best receiver (Javon Wims), and the best O-lineman (Isaiah Wynn) and the tight end who starts (Jeb Blazevich.)

That is a lot that will be lost, and is one reason I’ve said even before this season began that 2018 may not be The Year, so why not this year? That said, the way recruiting has gone, and the depth that has been developed this year, some pretty talented players will step into bigger roles next year. It should definitely quality as a Reloading-not-Rebuilding-year.

OVER-UNDER: KENTUCKY EDITION

Thank you as always to Forestry Dawg for setting the lines.

Benny Snell Jr. Rushing Yards, 79.5 … Over. Georgia’s run defense will be much better this week, but Snell is good and Kentucky feeds him a lot, so I’ll guess he ends up with around 85 rushing yards.
Kentucky Snaps out of the Wildcat Formation, 6.5
… Over. Way over.
Garrett Johnson Receptions, 3.5
… Under. I have nothing else to add.
Rodrigo Blankenship, Field Goals, 2.5
… Under. Lots of touchdowns.
Jake Fromm Passing Yards, 199.5
… Under. Kentucky’s pass defense has been lousy, but Formm has only thrown that much twice, and if this game is a rout I’ll bet Georgia doesn’t take chances.
Georgia Tight End Targets, 3.5
… Under. My bet would be three.
Georgia 15-Yard Penalties, 1.5
… Under. They’ll correct that for at least a week.
Plays where Kentucky’s Defense Lines up with Ten or Fewer Defenders on the Field, 1.5
… Under. But over would be fun.

HAPPY FUN TIME BASKETBALL SEGMENT 

Dawgs have the “looks” of a great team but definitely struggled to find scoring aside from Yante Maten vs USC-Upstate. What can a Dawg fan look forward to seeing on the offensive end this season? Who is taking JJs jump shots? Who is making JJs 3s?
– Hayden Copeland

First off, I’d be curious your definition of “great team.” Can they make the NCAA tournament? Definitely. But I don’t know if they’re good enough to comfortably make it in. And yes, to me that will mainly depend on your question: Who makes 3s?

The good news is there’s more upside than they’ve shown thus far. Tyree Crump hasn’t played much, because his defense isn’t what Mark Fox wants, and if Crump can turn that around that will help. Nicolas Claxton, I keep hearing, is really good, and as he gets more minutes at small forward or stretch-4 he will provide that help too. And Jordan Harris, once he’s back on the court, can hit one or two a game as well.

Harris, incidentally, does not appear to be injured, as he’s been going through warm-ups, but Fox hasn’t said what Harris did to incur discipline, and I haven’t confirmed it on my end either.

Georgia guard Tyree Crump. (FILE PHOTO)

What’s your biggest concern with this year’s basketball team?  My concern is a weak back court.  Playing in a deep SEC with tons of talent at the guard position I’m afraid we just don’t stack up.  Last year I thought Tyree Crump and Jordan Harris were the future, but Crump still hasn’t developed into a starter and has only logged 27 minutes in the first two games combined (less than true freshman Teshaun Hightower).  Jackson is an average SEC point guard, but not special in my opinion, and I don’t see him winning games for us against the better teams in SEC play. Hammonds is legit and Maten is one of the best post players in the league, but Maten can only carry the team so far by himself.
– David Knowlton

Everything you write is fair. Maten and Hammonds look like a really good one-two punch, and with Derek Ogbeide down there, the Bulldogs won’t be out-rebounded or outmatched down low by many, if any teams. But unless Georgia forces other teams to play into that, then you can’t win all your games without dependable guard play.

Hightower has impressed me, but he’s still a freshman. Jackson is off to a slid start, but like you said, is he a top-tier SEC point guard? Maybe eventually, but not yet. And as mentioned previously, this team needs good 3-point shooting to stretch the floor and allow Maten, Hammonds and company to score inside.

LIGHTNING ROUND 

Do you see a drop off in Trent Thompson’s performance this year? Rewatching AU game I felt he was getting dominated, which I find surprising given his pedigree and past performance. Were the offseason issues a setback?
– EJ Brown

Not so much a drop-off as a lack of consistency, which was a problem last year for Thompson. But to have zero sacks through 10 games is a concern. Thompson is a defensive lineman, and thus was part of the defense’s success the first nine games, getting a push to help open things up for the linebackers. He clearly, however, has not taken the next step yet to a level of dominance.

Seth – do you think our defense against Auburn would have fared better if we had played to our strength (stop the run) rather than protecting the secondary?
– Denmen

 I don’t think it’s that Georgia didn’t try to stop the run, it’s that for whatever reason it was pushed around in the run game as it hasn’t been all year. The team did seem to take more chances in the pass game, which may have hurt. But guys were also more bunched up in run defense than before, rather than playing contain well, and when they did try to play contain they were blocked out of the play. 

Why is leaping a penalty (albeit not 100% of the time) but hurdling a player is celebrated? If safety is the reason, what is the defense for hurdling?
– Seth Freeman 

The two plays are very different as far as safety, in my opinion. Hurdling a player is almost always a one-on-one situation in the open field, the hurdle tends to occur when a defensive player is crouched or going for the knees, thus lessening the chance the hurdler will end up being upended and landing on his head. It is a danger to the player’s hamstring, though. The leaping penalty, as I pointed out in Monday’s At Second Glance, is in place because guys are trying to go over multiple blockers who are upright, and is more likely to result in a neck injury. D’Andre Walker did in fact land in a potentially dangerous way, though he was OK.

Seth – Who do you see us having the better chance to beat in the SEC championship game…Auburn or Alabama?
– GaboyJHarris

My gut says Georgia should want Auburn, which would be coming off a win over Alabama, and might be overconfident given that and a rematch with a team it beat by 23 points. Plus, it would be on a neutral field instead of the very inhospitable Jordan-Hare. Alabama, on the other hand, may be banged up but it’s still Alabama and still coached by Nick Saban, and most of its players have been there before.

What is the staff’s routine on recruiting during the week? Who’s on the road? Does it vary each week? How many coaches stay home? Etc etc.
– Kingof the South

They’re always working the phones to recruit as much as reasonably possible. during non-coaching hours. A good chunk of the staff goes out recruiting on Friday nights before games, and that depends usually on logistics and who has what recruiting area. If you go to the Atlanta airport you might run into a coach catching a flight to go see a prospect. (I don’t recommend this, by the way. Please do not go out buying gate passes just on the off chance of running into Dell McGee or Glenn Schumann.)

AND FINALLY …

Is Kirby Smart an evil genius? The loss to Auburn facilitates a possible rematch in the SECCG and extends this season’s revenge theme.
– Shag Harvey

Uh oh, Shag, you cracked the code, and now a quality control staffer is going to have to quality control you. The Process isn’t just for players, ya know.