ATHENS — It’s nearly Christmas, I haven’t a gift under the tree, Georgia is about to resume football practice, I’m selling one house, building another, hauling things to storage and, lo and behold, there’s this relatively new thing called the early national signing period rumbling like a long, loud freight train about to pop out of a dark tunnel.
Welcome to the winter holiday, folks, also known as College Football Never Stops. And, I know, you love it. I do, too.
As I’m struggling to manage all these converging priorities in my life, I’m overwhelmed by all the subject matter that deserves to be weighed in on. Owing you and our beloved sponsors a Towers’ Take, I was left to reason I just need to touch on them all before plunging into a weekend that will include attending to all the aforementioned tasks, plus a little Georgia hoops action with the Bulldogs’ hosting their best opponent so far.
Let’s start with the most popular subject — Georgia football recruiting.
There was the time I was The Atlanta Journal-Constutition‘s primary recruiting reporter. I know, I’m also glad that’s not the case anymore.
As most surely know, DawgNation now employs one of the finest full-time “Recruitniks” in the business in Jeff Sentell to track the Bulldogs’ business. And nobody does a better job of keeping up not only with all the big developments — and there always seems to be big developments where Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs are concerned — but all the minutiae as well.
I’m in position to get Sentell on the phone or exchange texts any time a thought or question enters my mind. It’s about this of year I realize what a blessing that is. So while I don’t write about recruiting a lot until the calendar turns to those significant signing dates or those blue-chippers are about to head to campus, I keep up through Jeff and needle him for details every now and then.
I have two thoughts on the Bulldogs’ recruiting as we head into this final weekend of what is really he most intense competition of all:
One, it’s truly incredible the heights to which Smart and his staff have raised recruiting at Georgia in such short order. I hear people say he has the Bulldogs “closing in” on Nick Saban and Alabama in terms of the overall talent base of the program. Well, based on their last two on-field meetings, I contend Georgia is already eye-to-eye with the Crimson Tide in terms of the pedigree of football players that are on the roster and the level of coaching and development they’re getting. Never mind, those last two results. When you’ve led or been tied with the team arguably the most dominant program in the history of the sport for 119 of 120 regulation minutes, you’re not overachieving with inferior products. You’re there, dude. And don’t start quibbling with me, Bama fans, over the number of No. 1-ranked recruiting classes or national championship trophies your spoiled enterprise has harvested over the years. The fact is, you’re batting .500 at best with the Bulldogs over prospects you both want. And it’s clear Smart and his staff knows what to do with them when he gets them on campus. This new rivalry is not about to disappear like a morning fog. Smart is on your bumper and in your rearview like Dale Earnhardt in his NASCAR heyday, and it’s only a matter of time before he spins you out and takes the checkered flag. Of this I’m absolutely certain.
Two, if this recruiting year finishes like it’s shaping to, Smart might go down as one of the greatest closers in recruiting history. They certainly won’t get them all (will they?), but the Bulldogs once again are in the hunt for some mighty big game right down to the 11th hour of this December signing period. And that’s the real difference nowadays. Georgia has always recruited well, as it should as the state school in one of the most fertile recruiting grounds in America. But the difference now is where the Bulldogs would regularly find themselves left at the altar on a major flip, it’s Georgia doing the flipping nowadays, and landing some major prospects in the process.
That’s the case again this year as the Bulldogs sit with four 5-stars already committed and in the hunt on players that could drive that number again into the seven or eight range. That would, in turn, stock Georgia’s roster with as many 30 5-star prospects, or more than a third. Now a 5-star does not automatically a great football player make, but suffice it to say, you’ll take your chances on a prospect everybody in the country wanted over a diamond in the rough any day.
Based on what I’m hearing, Georgia has a great shot at a lot of these final major targets. Wide receiver Jadon Haselwood was long committed to UGA and, other than the distant outpost of Oklahoma, his other finalists aren’t competing on the arc that the Bulldogs currently are. No team could have a greater need at inside linebacker than does Georgia, which is in it to win it on Mississippi 5-star Nakobe Dean. And with rumblings of comings and goings in the backfield, where else would any ambitious running back — such as IMG’s Trey Sanders — want to go besides UGA, which presently has three NFL starters within four years of their matriculation through Athens?
And that’s to say nothing of Smart’s annual Transfer Treasure Trove. There are many others recruiting storylines that Sentell is tracking like an astronomer from a mountaintop observatory, so be sure follow him on Twitter and keep your DawgNation app notifications activated. And say this for Smart: He keeps us all intriqued to the last possible minute, and left wanting more.
Next stop: Attrition
Of course, the flipside to signing every 5-star within site of Hubble telescope is there’s not enough room in the orbit for everyone in the galaxy. So attrition is inevitable, and it seems as though that might be the case again this year.
Now attrition takes place naturally in college football as it is. Some players can’t cut it academically, others realize on their own their getting buried on the depth chart, and medical DQs are as common as redshirts nowadays. Suffice it to say, there will need to be some movement for Georgia to make room for everybody it wants to join the “Burned Out on Bama” initiative.
Some of that will sure come in the form of early NFL departures. The Bulldogs don’t have many (if any) sure things in terms of can’t-pass-on-such-money, underclassman draft prospects. But they do have several who, for varying reasons, might consider making the leap now. Running back Elijah Holyfield, receivers Mecole Hardman and Riley Ridley, tight end Isaac Nauta and safety J.R. Reed are among the Georgia underclassmen said to have asked the NFL for a draft evaluation. And sometimes what’s on that assessment is not the determining factor. Sometimes it’s just time to move on.
And what’s to stop some of these degree-holding juniors from deciding to move on or transfer for a chance to play more or just to get on with their post-football lives? It’s the ever-turning life cycle of college football. And the way Smart works Georgia’s numbers, there’s rarely any wiggle-room.
The Great 8 Debate
There’s always what should be done, and what will done, isn’t there?
Those of you who read me regularly or tune into my Marco’s Pizza Towers’ Take Live podcasts know I am and have always been a proponent of the 8-team playoff. It has always made the most sense to me, and apparently some member of the current College Football Playoff system feel the same way. Not surprisingly, big wigs from the Big 12 and Big Ten are losing patience with the exclusionary practices including only four teams in the playoff, and the selection committee’s penchant for playing fast and loose with their directive of choosing “the four best teams.”
Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez and Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby have provided some volume to the chorus of cries for expanding the field to eight teams. Too many worthy participants are getting left out, they say, even giving a nod to the American Athletic Conference’s undefeated darling of Central Florida. But their solution — eliminating conference championship games — is a bad one. And it’s unwinnable to boot. The SEC, as Commissioner Greg Sankey made plain, is never going to relinquish its wildly successful title match, as well it shouldn’t.
I have long proposed a simpler solution, but it’s one that surely wouldn’t fly as it might actually take money off the table of Power 5 fat-cats. That is, eliminate one game from these ridiculous 12-game, regular-season schedules. I mean, really, must alums and donors not only pay to see Austin Peay and Middle Tennessee, but ALSO UMass in the same season? Heck, I could even justify cutting back to 10 games in favor of an expanded playoff, which would only increase by one week, if they’re truly concerned about the number of games these “student-athletes” are playing, which they’re not (see college basketball, baseball, tennis, swimming, track, you name it).
No, they won’t do it because, in Georgia’s case, it’d be losing $3.5 million annually from one-game’s revenue. I’m of the mind that could easily be recouped from the TV money generated by an expanded playoff (a la the NCAA Basketball Tournament). But that’s the hangup you’re going to hear from administrators, the Bulldogs’ included. That, and you’re not going to be able to help out these poor middling football programs anymore, which we all know is the ultimate end-game.
No, I think they should make conference champions a requirement of the five “Group of Five” (they prefer that name) participants, and then take three at-larges. Those could be somebody like this year’s Bulldogs, who everybody believes were among the country’s best four teams at the end of the season, and/or an undefeated mid-major like UCF. Yes, there will still be arguments about the ninth and 10th teams being deserving, but that will always be the case, just like it is with all those bubble teams for the 65-team basketball tournament. And so what if an occasional four-loss team upsets its way into the playoff. It made for a pretty good story for Bainbridge High School in Georgia this year, don’t you think?
And while I’m fixing things, go ahead and put UCF and Notre Dame into the 10-team Big 12 Conference. Or put the Irish in the Big Ten or ACC where they belong and add USF to the Big 12. Do something with Notre Dame, or just leave them being subjected to the yearly scrutiny required for the at-large group.
It’s really simple when you think about it, but only if money isn’t central to the equation.
OK, that’s it for me. I’ve got to do some shopping and packing.