First and 10: Now is the one time Georgia doesn't want to be like Alabama
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
Now comes the difficult part for Georgia. They’ve copied the Alabama blueprint and they’ve ascended to the elite of college football.
Kirby Smart recruits better than anyone this side of Nick Saban, and his Georgia program – check that, the organization (gotta keep our Sabanisms clean, folks) – is a well-oiled machine outside of one lousy minute in the last two games with Alabama.
It is here where Georgia must forge its own path and stray from what Saban built at Alabama. It is here where Georgia must carve its own identity in the postseason when faced with a crushing loss that eliminates playing for a national title.
Alabama faced that exact scenario in 2008 and 2013 – and got crushed both times in the Sugar Bowl consolation game. How Georgia responds to its Sugar Bowl consolation game against a significantly inferior team (just like Alabama played) will go a long way in determining what kind of backbone Smart has built in Athens.
Is Georgia truly championship stuff, or is it another run of Georgia teams that never wins the big one(s)?
“There’s disappointment, but there’s also opportunity to move forward with a really young team and a chance to go on a national stage,” Smart said.
All good points. All accurate points.
Then game week arrives in the French Quarter, and players get distracted and they’re worn out from the legendary tough fall practices (they’re the same in Athens as they are in Tuscaloosa) and they simply aren’t zeroed in. Then Utah or Oklahoma arrives on game day with something to prove against the big, bad SEC, and the next thing you know, Stevenson Sylvester is sacking John Parker Wilson for the 28th time, or Trevor Knight is dropping another deep ball dime on a secondary full of future NFLers.
The easy response is Smart was there for those Alabama meltdowns, and it won’t happen again. He’ll have learned from his time as defensive coordinator on a staff faced with the difficult task of getting elite players ready to play a game that means absolutely nothing – against an inferior team with everything to gain and nothing to lose.
Remember what Smart said about his “really young team”? Let me give you an idea of what a “really young team” does when they’ve been given a weeklong furlough in one of the wildest cities in America, and they’re coming off a 2-week break from the daily grind of practice, prepare, play:
Utah 31, Alabama 17.
Oklahoma 45, Alabama 31.
There’s nothing you can do about it. They’re 18-22-year-olds who just had 11 months of brutal preparation and all or nothing goals evaporate when their guts were ripped out from the unthinkable.
In 2008, Tim Tebow hit 3 third-down touchdown passes to beat Alabama in a de facto BCS semifinal in the SEC Championship Game – a game, and those three throws, that still gnaws at Saban to this day.
In 2013, Auburn returned a missed field goal for a touchdown with 1 second remaining – the famed Kick-6 when Saban bullied officials to put one second back on the game clock – to beat unbeaten Alabama in the Iron Bowl and keep it from defending its national championship.
Last weekend, Alabama (again) came back from another deficit to Georgia (13 in last year’s national title game; 14 in last weekend’s SEC Championship Game) and won the game with a backup quarterback filling in for an injured — but also inefficient — quarterback (again) to steal a championship (again) from the Dawgs.
Now you want Georgia to suck that up (again), and travel to New Orleans to play a Texas team that will put the Georgia defense in difficult spots with a dual-threat quarterback (see: any man-under defense is susceptible to dual threat quarterbacks, hence, Jalen Hurts’ game-winning touchdown run) and big, physical receivers?
Make no mistake, Texas will score points on Georgia. And Texas can do enough defensively in the pass rush and by forcing turnovers to put Georgia in a precarious spot if Georgia does what Alabama did (twice) after devastating losses that prevented them from playing for it all.
If Georgia wants to define itself from the Alabama plan, it has to win a national championship and win a bowl game it should – even though it has no desire to be there.
One of those two benchmarks can be met on New Year’s Day.
2. Becoming Nick
Smart is young and aggressive and charging through the most difficult time for any coach trying to win big in the SEC against the behemoth that is Alabama.
But he has to pick and choose his spots to go rogue.
Any coach can forget to give his best offensive players the ball (Saban did it with TB Derrick Henry, Smart did it last weekend with TB D’Andre Swift getting 3 carries in the second half), but the concept of deception must be perfected before being used.
Hence, the 4th-and-dumb fake punt call – on 4th-and-11 at midfield with three minutes remaining! – and how it cost the Bulldogs the game and Playoff spot. You just can’t take an entire season, and nine months of an offseason of sweltering work and preparation, and place it all on a whim of a call in the most important game of the season.
Punt the damn ball.
But when you’ve hung around the master himself for nearly a decade; when you’ve watched Saban use an onside kick in the second half of a national championship game, you get ideas. Only there’s one big difference:
Saban kicked an onside kick against Clemson in the 2015 national championship game because he didn’t think his defense could stop Deshaun Watson and the Clemson offense, and because there were still 10 minutes remaining in the game!
Saban wanted to change the momentum of the game with the onside kick. Smart wanted to win the game with a fake punt on 4th-and-11 with his backup quarterback in punt protection.
Of course Alabama sniffed it out – as would any other opponent that suddenly sees your backup quarterback in punt protection.
It was an uncomfortable flashback to the LSU game, when instead of taking 3 points early in the first quarter amid a hostile environment, Smart tried a convoluted fake kick with spindly kicker Rodrigo Blankenship as the point man. Bad move.
These things take time for coaches to get the feel of it, and Smart, 42, will eventually figure it out. Hopefully, it’s not to late when he does (more on that later).
So until further notice: trick plays = bad; your players are as good or better than theirs = good.
3. Dogged pursuit, The Epilogue
I thought it was interesting that Smart mentioned his “young” team numerous times in the aftermath of the SEC Championship Game loss, and then again during the teleconference for the Sugar Bowl.
The inference is clear: Fear not, we’ll be back in this situation again.
Despite the success in recruiting, and despite the fact that this is a young Georgia team, you can’t simply assume everything will stay status quo. Especially in the meat grinder league that is the SEC.
Does Smart think Florida will just stay put under Dan Mullen? The Gators were an absolute joke in 2017, and a year later, are playing in a New Year’s 6 bowl game. Florida also traded blows with Georgia for the better part of three quarters before succumbing because of inferior talent.
That talent gap won’t last for long. Nor will Tennessee lingering in the bottom of the SEC East Division.
Or as one SEC coach told me last weekend, “You better capitalize when you can get it. Unless you’re Nick (Saban), it can go south quick.”
Smart clearly isn’t Saban. At least not yet on the field.
4. The big injury
Tua Tagovailoa had surgery on his high ankle sprain, and Saban says Alabama’s star quarterback will be out two weeks.
Think about that, everyone: two weeks.
High ankle sprains are one of the most common injuries in football, and typically take anywhere from 4-8 weeks to heal. Saban said Tagovailoa had procedure performed by famed orthopedist Dr. James Andrews that can expedite the healing process.
Andrews performed the same surgery on Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, who sustained a high ankle sprain on Oct. 20 against Tennessee. Hurts didn’t play again until Nov. 17 against Citadel.
That’s one full month.
When asked about his health after last weekend’s SEC Championship Game, Hurts admitted he’s still not 100 percent – but that he’s well enough to play. We all remember the video of Hurts trying to jog – jog, everyone – during pregame against LSU on Nov. 3 – two weeks after the injury/procedure.
Here’s the problem: Tagovailoa could be ready to play by Dec. 29, but you can’t tell me he’ll be ready to practice two weeks after the procedure – unless he magically heals quicker than the rest of humanity.
And that – here’s the critical issue – affects preparation. At what point will Tagovailoa be full-go to prepare for the game?
Bottom line: Hurts will play against Oklahoma in the CFP national semifinal, and might even start if Tagovailoa isn’t healthy or hasn’t had enough preparation.
5. The Weekly Five (plus 6 more)
SEC Bowl picks vs. the spread:
- Oklahoma vs. Alabama (-14)
- Vanderbilt (-1) vs. Baylor
- Auburn vs. Purdue (+3)
- Michigan (-6) vs. Florida
- South Carolina (-6) vs. Virginia
- Missouri vs. Oklahoma State (+7.5)
- N.C. State vs. Texas A&M (-7)
- Iowa vs. Mississippi State (-5)
- Kentucky vs. Penn State (+7)
- LSU (-7.5) vs. UCF
- Texas (+10.5) vs. Georgia
Last week: 3-2.
6. Big game, big statement
Make no mistake, Ed Orgeron says LSU will be ready for UCF. It’s a big game, and an important moment in the development of the LSU program.
His words, not mine.
And that’s a big statement to back up, especially considering what LSU has accomplished this season and what could happen against talented and motivated UCF.
The positive spin on LSU: the Tigers played a brutal schedule, and were 4-3 against ranked teams.
The negative: LSU was 1-3 against its biggest rivals, with losses to Alabama, Florida and Texas A&M, and a win over Auburn.
Now comes another big game against a team with a 25-game winning streak, motivation from being snubbed (again) by the CFP — and playing a backup quarterback. LSU can’t afford to lose this game.
Not because of SEC pride, or because you can’t lose to a Group of 5 team, or any other nonsensical reason. LSU must win because Orgeron has made it very clear that this game is important to his program.
Not like Auburn allegedly not playing hard in last year’s Peach Bowl loss to UCF. Not like Baylor feeling snubbed by being “forced” to play UCF in a Fiesta Bowl loss.
LSU has better players than UCF. LSU has more NFL talent and by any measure should beat UCF. That’s the danger of this game. A loss to UCF – despite the reality that UCF is a talented and motivated team – will look poorly on what Orgeron is trying to do at LSU.
It will mean 4 losses – the same as last season – for a fan base that doesn’t know how to absorb one.
Les Miles’ last two full seasons in Baton Rouge finished with a 17-8 record. If LSU loses to UCF, Orgeron’s first two full seasons will have produced 18-8.
A win over UCF, snapping the Knights’ 25-game winning streak — and winning a major bowl to get to the coveted 10-win mark – will make the offseason go much smoother.
7. The test, a year later
The turnaround at Florida has been dramatic. From a team that looked like it had zero desire – and zero playmakers on offense – to a team that looks like it’s having fun and developing into a legitimate SEC threat.
Now the Gators have a chance to show just how far they’ve come in a year against Michigan in the Peach Bowl. The same Michigan team that annihilated Florida in the 2017 season opener, a game that exposed the lack of playmakers on offense.
At least that’s what it looked like in 2017.
If you don’t think coaching is important in this age of he who recruits the best players wins, take a look at the Florida skill players. It’s more than just the turnaround for QB Feleipe Franks (who still has a long way to go); it’s the play of the wide receivers, who looked lost and out of their depth last season.
One SEC coach told me this year that outside of Alabama, Florida “has the best collection of skills guys in our league.” That’s an unfathomable statement when you compare it to last year’s Michigan blowout loss.
In 2017, Florida’s top five receivers had 6 touchdowns. This season, they have 16. In 2017, Florida ran for 1,720 yards; this season, the Gators have run for 2,514.
In last year’s 33-17 loss to Michigan, Florida didn’t score an offensive touchdown, and had 27 carries for 11 yards.
That loss was the beginning of a long and painful season for Franks, who was benched and brought back and finished the season with a TD to INT ratio of 9-to-8. He’s at 23-to-6 this season, his QB rating is 30 points higher (141.1) and the Florida protection has cut down dramatically on sacks (29 to 12).
The return of offense at Florida will get a stiff test from a Michigan team that led the nation in total defense for much of the season, and held the Gators to 192 total yards in 2017.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Hey Matt: Any feeling where Hugh Freeze ends up?
Jerry: From what I’ve gleaned after speaking to league coaches and a few agents is this: Freeze might be waiting to see what unfolds at Alabama before making a decision.
But is that a smart move?
Current Tide offensive coordinator Mike Locksley is the favorite to land the Maryland job, which would leave the OC job open at Alabama. Saban tried to hire Freeze last year before SEC commissioner Greg Sankey stepped in and said it’s not good for the league’s image. That’s not an issue now.
Does Freeze take a chance and wait for Alabama to play out, and maybe miss out on the Tennessee OC job? My gut feeling is Freeze wants the Alabama job because of its high profile nature, and because of Saban’s history of rehabilitating scorned coaches (see: Lane Kiffin, Locksley) and elevating other lesser known coaches (Brian Daboll, Jim McElwain).
But what does Saban want? He has been effusive in his praise for quarterbacks coach Dan Enos, whose work with Tagovailoa and Hurts has been remarkable. What if Saban chooses to elevate Enos to OC (he was OC at Arkansas prior to coming to Alabama) and pass on Freeze?
9. Numbers game
1:04. Why rehash the painful truth for Georgia? Because it’s unfathomable, that’s why. Georgia had the lead or was tied with Alabama for 118:56 of 120 minutes (and the first half of an overtime) of the CFP National Championship Game and the SEC Championship Game – arguably the two biggest games in every college football season – and lost.
10. Quote to note
LSU coach Ed Orgeron on playing UCF: “We’re highly motivated. This is where our team wanted to go. We’re not happy with how the season ended the last game. We’re gonna be ready to go.”