First and 10: Georgia has real problems. Can Kirby Smart solve them in time?
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
We’re a week from the release of the first College Football Playoff poll, and we still have no idea what Georgia is all about.
Here’s the cold, ugly reality: neither does Georgia.
I spent the past week talking to SEC coaches and NFL scouts about the Dawgs, and how – after an ugly road loss to LSU where nothing went right – a team with as much talent as anyone in the nation not named Alabama can be staring at failing to win its division, much less return to the CFP?
There were a handful of reasons, and while each separately wasn’t enough to derail a season, combined they’re debilitating.
“The look on the faces of that team – coaches and players – after the LSU game was remarkable,” one NFL scout said. “It’s like they didn’t think they could lose, and when they did, suddenly, it’s, ‘What the hell is the problem?’ It’s not players or schemes, that’s surface stuff.”
After casting a wide net, here’s what league coaches and scouts say are the underlying problems at Georgia:
A. The nonconference schedule: “They thought they would just cruise along and everything would be the same as it was last year,” one SEC coach said. “You don’t think we’ve all been through that? When you’re not tested early, and you’re not playing in a division that’s going to test you, you start to think your (expletive deleted) don’t stink.”
Georgia rolled into South Bend, Ind., last year in the second week of the season, and had no idea what kind of team it had. The Dawgs had lost five games in 2016, three of which were horrendous program setbacks (Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Georgia Tech).
Starting quarterback Jacob Eason was injured in Week 1, and true freshman Jake Fromm was leading the team against an elite Notre Dame defense. Georgia found a way to win in the fourth quarter, Fromm played smart and wasn’t careless with the ball and a team that was looking for answers suddenly had them all in one galvanizing night in Indiana.
Fast forward to this season: The nonconference schedule is awful (FCS Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee, UMass, Georgia Tech) and Georgia thought all of those red flags that should’ve been seen early on were simply mirages.
“The worst thing that could’ve happened to them was beating the tar out of South Carolina,” one SEC coach said. “You do that, and hey, it’s just like last year. We’re giving up a ton of yards, we’re not really sharp on offense. Let’s just bang out these wins week after week until we have to play Alabama again. But look, we all know each other in this league. We know each other’s players, we know each other’s tendencies; there’s nothing surprising. You get that surprise by playing a big (nonconference) game that will force you to self-evaluate.”
B. A lack of leadership: When tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel returned for their senior seasons in 2017 — and did so after working it out with each other – Georgia had strong leadership to get it through any potential rough spots.
There were plenty of obstacles: losing Eason on the first series of the season, the big game at Notre Dame, the 23-point loss to Auburn, the rematch with Auburn in the SEC Championship Game, the 17-point deficit to Oklahoma.
“Where are those leaders now?” another SEC coach said. “Auburn is going in to take a big lead in the (SEC) championship game, and Georgia gets a turnover and the game is never the same. Then you’re down to Oklahoma, and Chubb comes out in the second half and goes for 50, and Sony goes for 40 and it’s a tie game and Oklahoma has no idea what hit it. You look at the LSU loss, and who was there to change momentum? No one. Who was there to grab that team by the throat and change course? No one. It’s like they let it happen to them.”
C. The quarterback quandary: The last thing any coach at any level wants to deal with, but was inevitable once Georgia coach Kirby Smart signed quarterback Justin Fields, the nation’s No. 2 high school player.
Smart was fortunate last year because Fromm (a 4-star freshman) had to play when Eason (another former 5-star) was injured. Fromm had one of the best seasons in SEC history – if not the best — for a true freshman quarterback, and had a vise grip on the job. So when he continued to struggle on third down in the first month of the season, and when it wasn’t addressed and when Fields wasn’t given more time to develop, it left Georgia with struggling quarterback against LSU and nowhere to turn.
Fields played in the 20-point loss, but only in run sets. He didn’t throw a pass. Fromm, meanwhile, has completed 48 percent of his passes on third down, and has 3 INTs in 3rd-and-10+ situations.
“(Fromm) is just not good on third down. He wasn’t last year and he isn’t this year,” another SEC coach said. “It’s no secret: If you can get them to 3rd-and-medium or 3rd-and-long, you’re going to have success if you can get pressure. They’re not as committed to the run as they were last year, and they’ve got three or four (tailbacks) out there. No rhythm, no attitude, no reason for the defense to not tee off on Fromm.”
Now the biggest game of the season arrives this weekend against surging rival Florida in Jacksonville, and the Gators’ quick and rangy defensive ends will cause problems for Georgia’s offensive tackles. How does Georgia react if Fromm struggles with the pass rush (see: LSU), and at what point does Fields become a viable alternative (more on that later)?
Beat Florida, and Georgia needs only to win at Kentucky a week later – against a Kentucky team struggling to score points – to win the SEC East and return the SEC Championship Game. Lose either game, and the odds of defending its SEC Championship are slim at best.
2. Finding a spot
By the time things kick off in Jacksonville, the Georgia staff will have had nearly two weeks to dissect what the Gators do on defense – and more important, how to use Fields to counteract it.
Fromm has been harassed in the pocket all season and while he’s not overly athletic, he can get positive yards on scrambles. The difference with Fields: He can change a game on a scramble.
It’s just not that he’s a fast, willing runner; he’s also proven to be accurate when breaking containment. And he gives the offense another weapon with the zone-read run game. Florida plays a lot of single safety high and man under schemes, defenses designed to pressure the quarterback – but with a distinct liability of not accounting for the quarterback.
Georgia needs specific packages for Fields, who more than likely still isn’t ready to play (if he were, he would’ve had a package against LSU and would’ve played). That package must include throws so Florida doesn’t key on Fields in the run game every time he steps on the field (like LSU did).
Two or three tendency-breaking plays can change the course of a game.
“Believe me, it’s not easy to say, ‘OK, we know what we’ve got here, but what we have over here can help, too — if we can get him ready,'” one SEC coach said. “The tendency is to stick with what you know until you can’t any longer. We’re all creatures of habit; that’s our biggest flaw. Georgia is at the point now where they have to change it up.”
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3. Finding Georgia, The Epilogue
It’s the old Mike Tyson argument: Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.
“And that team on the other sideline has been throwing some haymakers on defense in the last month,” one NFL scout said of Florida’s defense.
And therein lies the problem of playing Fields: It’s a dangerous point of the season, and there’s no going back once he starts getting significant snaps.
“Because you’re telling (Fromm) you can’t win big games with him, without a little help from the guy who wants his job,” an NFL scout said. “Then what? Fromm is an alpha dog; that’s his team. It’s a delicate balancing act. (Alabama coach) Nick (Saban) has done an unbelievable job keeping that (same) thing going, but it blew up on (Clemson coach) Dabo (Swinney).”
Said an SEC coach: “You’re not just dealing in the now, you have to look at the future, too. Tua (Tagovailoa) said publicly that if he didn’t play in the championship game last year, he’d have left (Alabama). Then you’re an injury away from it all unraveling. Some guys play for the now, some guys try to balance it all.”
4. SEC to the CFP
A mere two weeks ago, the SEC landing two teams in the CFP not only looked possible, but almost probable with unbeaten Alabama and Georgia heading toward a date in the SEC Championship and beyond.
Now there’s no telling where the path leads – although it more than likely ends with Alabama celebrating an SEC Championship in Atlanta.
Five SEC teams remain in the CFP hunt, each with varying difficulty of schedule and needs. A breakdown of the five:
Record: 8-0 overall, 5-0 SEC.
Best win: 45-23 vs. Texas A&M
Impact of loss: None yet, but Alabama is the only team of the remaining five who can still afford to lose a game – depending when, and in what situation.
The November to remember: at LSU, Mississippi State, The Citadel, Auburn.
Odds of reaching the CFP: 9/2. The way QB Tua Tagovailoa is playing, it’s going to take a monumental effort from anyone in the SEC to beat Alabama. The Tide hasn’t had an off game yet (every championship team does during the regular season), and there’s enough danger remaining in the schedule to make it interesting if Alabama doesn’t show up ready to play in November.
Record: 6-1 overall, 4-1 SEC
Best win: 41-17 at South Carolina.
Impact of loss: A 20-point loss is bad no matter who you’re playing, but Georgia did survive from last year’s meltdown at Auburn to reach the CFP. So there’s that.
The November to remember: at Kentucky, Auburn, UMass, Georgia Tech.
Odds of reaching the CFP: 25/1. A lot needs to happen, beginning and ending with winning out. And after the LSU performance, that’s far from given. Based on talent alone, Georgia should be in Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game with an 11-1 record and a chance to earn a spot in the CFP.
Record: 7-1 overall, 4-1 SEC
Best win: 36-16 vs. Georgia.
Impact of loss: Zero negative impact. The 27-19 loss to Florida – when the Gators road-graded the stout LSU defense for more than 200 yards rushing — means nothing. LSU’s path is clear: win out, reach the CFP. Anything else, and it doesn’t happen.
The November to remember: Alabama, at Arkansas, Rice, at Texas A&M.
Odds of reaching the CFP: 35/1. There’s still plenty of heavy lifting remaining, even if the unthinkable happens and LSU upsets mighty Alabama. Texas A&M then stands out as the toughest remaining game, but – and don’t laugh – Arkansas has given LSU fits for a majority of the past decade. Don’t think it can’t happen again.
Record: 6-1 overall, 4-1 SEC
Best win: 27-19 vs. LSU
Impact of loss: None, other than what it did for the team’s psyche. Losing to Kentucky for the first time in more than three decades – and doing so at home – reenergized the Gators and refocused a team that was full of fractions.
The November to remember: Missouri, South Carolina, Idaho, at Florida State.
Odds of reaching the CFP: 150/1. If this Gators beat Georgia, they’ll be the highest ranked 1-loss team in the CFP. That a $450 ticket will get you in Levi’s Stadium for the CFP National Championship Game. While Florida has enough talent to beat most teams in the SEC, the one team they can’t stands in the way of a spot in the CFP. Starting to see the trend with 1-loss SEC teams? Win or walk.
Record: 6-1 overall, 4-1 SEC
Best win: 27-16 at Florida.
Impact of loss: Like all the other 1-loss SEC teams, one loss (this one in overtime at Texas A&M) does not a season ruin. It’s a league perk.
The November to remember: Georgia, at Tennessee, Middle Tennessee, at Louisville.
Odds of reaching the CFP: 300/1. Have you seen the way QB Terry Wilson has played in October? It got so bad last week, that UK stuck to the run at Vanderbilt and played great defense to get a critical win. UK ran 62 plays; Wilson threw the ball 9 times (and completed only 3 for 18 yards). At this point, every game is an adventure – including this week at Missouri.
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread:
- Florida (+6.5) vs. Georgia
- Texas A&M (+3) at Mississippi State
- Kentucky (+7) at Missouri
- Vanderbilt (+1.5) at Arkansas
- Tennessee at South Carolina (off)
Last week: 2-3.
6. Finding a flaw
LSU has two weeks to figure out Alabama, to delve deep into the odyssey that is Tua Tagovailoa’s insane TD-to-INT ratio of 25-to-0.
But think about this: Even if LSU does find a way to slow the Alabama offense, LSU’s offense still must keep pace. And that’s not happening with the way QB Joe Burrow has played this season.
“If you go out there and go 3-and-out on one series, you could be down 14-0 before a blink of an eye,” says Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher, whose team has had the most success against Alabama this fall – and still lost by 22 points.
Burrow has completed barely 50 percent of his passes, and has a TD-to-INT ratio of 6-to-3. He’s averaging 6.9 yards per attempt, a paltry number that is 81st in the nation and explains the lack of a deep passing game and chunk plays (Tagovailoa leads the nation at 13.6).
If Alabama has one weakness, it’s in the secondary where it can be exposed by physical receivers and accurate throws. LSU has the receivers to make plays; Burrow is still figuring it out.
Elite wideout Justin Jefferson will be a first-round pick when he leaves LSU, and the Tigers have two physical receivers – Stephen Sullivan and Dee Anderson – who both stand 6-6 and are strong enough to win 50-50 balls.
Yet here’s the problem: Every time your offense can’t convert third downs, you punt and give the ball back to Tagovailoa. LSU is 86th in the nation in third-down conversion rate (37.21 percent), and has punted 33 times in eight games – or four punts a game.
Or four more chances for the Alabama offense. See where this is headed?
7. Change for change sake
South Carolina fans want answers, and want the backup quarterback. The problem: Everyone loves the backup – without knowing the entire story.
Two critical issues for those who think South Carolina coach Will Muschamp should switch from QB Jake Bentley to senior backup Michael Scarnecchia:
1. The Gamecocks receiving corps, a strength coming into the season, has woefully underperformed. Dropped balls, poor depth on routes, not enough physicality when fighting for balls.
2. Scarnecchia had a big game against Missouri, which is 121st in the nation in pass defense.
Bentley hasn’t played well at times, shares the SEC lead with 7 interceptions and has been forcing balls and trying to make perfect throws. That’s what happens when receivers are underperforming and the offensive line struggles at times in pass protection. The quarterback thinks it’s his game to win – one way or the other.
Muschamp says Bentley has to play well, and that he’s confident in Scarnecchia, “If we feel like we can make a change in a positive direction.”
Understand this: Muschamp doesn’t want to change quarterbacks. He knows Bentley is potentially an elite player. He just needs help around him.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: I saw your reaction on Twitter about the terrible targeting call on (LSU linebacker) Devin White. You can’t be serious that you think the SEC should uphold that call. Maybe the worst targeting call I’ve ever seen.
Tina: It doesn’t matter what I think about the call. It doesn’t matter what the Louisiana governor thinks, or the LSU president or LSU AD Joe Alleva, who is appealing the call. It only matters what the SEC collaborative replay thinks about the call – and they called targeting.
This isn’t the Pac-12, where anyone can sit in on the collaborative replay and make calls. This is about integrity of your officials and the system. There’s zero chance of the SEC overturning a call the SEC made.
I’ve been in that Birmingham War Room, as the late great former SEC commissioner Mike Slive called it. There’s the commissioner (Greg Sankey), the head of SEC officials (Steve Shaw) and real time communications. Nothing is missed.
When the call is made, it’s gold – from their standpoint. They’re not changing, they’re not later making excuses because some lawyer who knows a friend of a friend who owed another friend a favor so they threw him in the instant replay booth to make final calls on … look, that stuff doesn’t happen at the SEC.
Take the L and move on. There’s no Alabama conspiracy, no hate of LSU.
9. Numbers game
Third down and manageable. Kentucky is struggling to score points, scoring 80 points in its past four SEC games (20 ppg.). Up next: Missouri, which has enough on offense with QB Drew Lock to score more than 20.
This leaves UK in a unique situation on the road: play tempo, control the clock, get a majority of the drives to third and manageable. Why, you ask?
Because that’s when Benny Snell Jr. is at his best.
In seven games this season, Snell has carried the ball 23 times in 3rd-and-6 or less situations. The results are impressive: 18 carries for 103 yards on 3rd-and short (1-3), and five carries for 45 yards on 3rd-and-manageable (4-6).
He’s averaging a first down — 6.4 yards per carry — on 3rd-and-6 or less situations.
Forget about QB Terry Wilson’s struggles. Put the ball in Snell’s hands, play defense and get to the Georgia game next week with a chance to seize control of the SEC East race.
10. Quote to note
Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt on one of the many vast differences between players at his current employer (Tennessee) and his former (Alabama): “You call a corner blitz, and we tippy-toe in there and nobody blocks us, and they throw a 50-yard touchdown. I bet you when they call a corner blitz, I bet you their corner didn’t tippy-toe in there.”