First and 10: Is this year's Georgia team as good as last year's Georgia team? No. So quit asking
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
While everyone in red and black stands in front of a tangled wreckage and states, without hesitation, that they’ve seen this before, I’m here to get into some cold, harsh truth about Georgia.
It ain’t happening.
This is not the same Georgia football team as 2017. Not even remotely close.
So when Georgia coaches and players start conflating 2017 and 2018, it’s time to take a critical eye to what looks like an easy excuse.
“We lost (again) to a team in the (SEC) West, on the road,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said after an ugly loss last weekend to LSU. “Everything is still in front of us.”
Technically, yes. Realistically, there’s a lot of green left in that putt.
Even if the beatdown at LSU was an anomaly (it wasn’t); even if quarterback Jake Fromm’s regression really is just a numbers thing (it isn’t, and more on that later), the idea of navigating what’s ahead and finishing with one of four coveted spots in the College Football Playoff is laughable. The difference between the road to the CFP in 2017 and this fall is distinct and daunting:
- 2017: Kentucky (7-3), at Georgia Tech (5-5), Auburn (10-2).
- 2018: Florida (6-1) in Jacksonville, at Kentucky (5-1), Auburn (4-3), UMass (2-5), Georgia Tech (3-4), Alabama (7-0) or LSU (6-1).
If that doesn’t convince you, maybe this will. In its only significant game to date, Georgia:
- Lost by 20 points to a team that had scored six offensive touchdowns in Power 5 games against defenses not named Ole Miss.
- Gave up 275 yards rushing.
- Had four turnovers and didn’t force one.
And now comes Florida and Kentucky, two teams that don’t turn the ball over and can pound away in the run game. Georgia got whipped at LSU because Georgia couldn’t control the line of scrimmage.
What happens when Florida and Kentucky – with similar offensive run blocking and better running backs than LSU – line up and start trading blows with the Bulldogs?
What happens when a team that lost to its rival by 35 points in last year’s World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, gets on the field in Jacksonville with a boatload of emotion and confidence?
What happens when a school that for decades has been overshadowed by its basketball program, plays host to the biggest football game in Commonwealth history to earn the inside track to play in its first SEC Championship Game?
And more than anything, what happens if this version of Georgia meets up with this year’s version of Alabama?
Georgia isn’t nearly as stout on the interior lines as it was last season, and it doesn’t cover in the secondary like it did. We’re seven games into the season, and the Georgia defense has nine sacks and four interceptions.
That’s a huge red flag for any team with CFP hopes – especially considering the schedule before the LSU debacle (here’s a hint: a whole lot of nothing).
Instead of talking about being in the same situation as last season, Georgia should zero in on something more attainable: winning a game of relevance in 2018.
2. The controversy that isn’t — yet
Jake Fromm struggled badly against LSU, and Justin Fields – the nation’s No. 1 recruit last year – didn’t play a significant snap.
That should tell you everything you need to know about Georgia’s “quarterback controversy.”
There is no controversy because Fields clearly isn’t ready to play. If he were, he would’ve replaced Fromm, who looked overwhelmed in the first half and who has been hit and miss for much of the season.
If Fields were ready to play, he wouldn’t have been inserted into the game for run-only packages. If he were ready to play, Georgia would have had a package for him that included throws and plays that allowed him to get outside the pocket and pressure a defense with his ability to throw or break contain and run.
He’s not throwing the ball in a game that matters because the staff doesn’t trust him to do so – at least not yet. At some point soon, that might have to change.
We’re halfway through the 2018 season, and Fromm is on pace to replicate solid numbers from his freshman season in 2017. They’re eerily on pace for almost identical numbers.
This is a problem for two reasons: a quarterback’s biggest jump is typically from his freshman to sophomore season (Fromm is statistically the same player), and Fromm’s third down conversion rate has gotten worse.
In 2017, Fromm completed 58.3 percent of third down passes for 11 TDs, 5 INTS and a QB rating of 174.68. So far this season, he has completed 48.6 percent of third down passes, with 2 TDs, 3 INTs and a QB rating of 101.4.
That’s a significant regression, and even more of a problem considering Georgia played its first elite defense last weekend. Georgia may not have a quarterback controversy on its hands now.
But it better get Fields ready to play — ready to throw the ball — in two weeks, or 2018 will officially not look like 2017.
3. Exposing the red and black, The Epilogue
We should have seen this coming. Georgia’s stock this season was based on last season and a rout of South Carolina in Week 2. And nothing else.
Because of this, we ignored Missouri rushing for 172 yards and 4 touchdowns. And the four fumbles against Tennessee (none lost). And Vanderbilt running for 138 yards – and three more fumbles (none lost).
Georgia, everyone, is a sloppy, undisciplined team. The very thing that played out last weekend against LSU.
When you play an elite team, sloppiness and undisciplined translates to four quarters of ugly – especially when your quarterback hasn’t progressed since last season and continues to struggle throwing on third down.
LSU got constant pressure on Fromm, disrupting his timing and forcing hurried throws (see: a wide open, underthrown flea-flicker). The Tigers don’t have near the pass rush that Florida has, and Georgia struggled in pass protection on the outside.
If you can’t consistently stop the run and have problems pass protecting, games you should win become adventures, and games you could lose become nightmares.
We’ll know exactly what kind of team Georgia is in two weeks, and exactly what to expect moving forward.
4. The uneasy unknown
Nick Saban says Tua Tagovailoa is OK. If that doesn’t make you feel better, what will?
But understand this: Despite what Saban says about Tagovailoa and his sprained right knee, any knee injury – no matter how minor – is susceptible to further damage because of the potential for instability.
There’s a reason that Tagovailoa — after he left the Missouri game last weekend when he tweaked the same knee – walked out of the medical tent and onto the sideline wearing a stability brace.
In fact, don’t be surprised if Tagovailoa wears a brace the rest of the season.
This, everyone, is why Saban did all he could this offseason to downplay the idea of a quarterback controversy between Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts. Why he desperately tried to sign current Washington State quarterback (and former ECU transfer) Gardner Minshew.
Why him finding a way to keep both Tagovailoa and Hurts on the same roster might be his best coaching move in years.
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread:
- Vanderbilt at Kentucky (-11)
- Auburn at Ole Miss (+3)
- Mississippi State at LSU (-7)
- Tennessee (+34) at Alabama
- Memphis (+8) at Missouri
Last week: 4-1
6. All the right moves
In the NFL, players are the stars. In college football, coaches rule the day.
In that sense, give Dan Mullen credit: It has taken less than a half of a season for him to find what makes his Florida team tick, and he’s squeezing every last ounce of opportunity out of it.
For the first time in nearly a decade, a Florida team has a real, definable identity.
If players truly are a reflection of coach, the Gators are a team playing with great confidence on offense despite not having an elite quarterback or a high-level SEC line.
“The first thing, the big thing, is you have to be physically and mentally tough,” Mullen said. “Once you have that, good things happen.”
Like a quarterback who still is overmatched but continues to develop, and doesn’t make critical, game-turning mistakes. Or an offensive line that doesn’t necessarily have NFL talent, but does just enough to create creases for a talented and tough group of running backs whose yards after contact are the most overlooked factor of the Gators’ turnaround this fall.
Or a team that feeds off trick plays called by Mullen: a game-winning wide receiver pass against Mississippi State, a tight end throwback pass on a go ahead touchdown drive against LSU, and a trick punt against Vanderbilt that energized a team trailing by double digits and still in a funk from a poor week of practice.
These are the things that galvanize a team and change a season.
Don’t forget: This is essentially the same team that couldn’t score points last fall under former coach Jim McElwain, and had completely lost its way in a demoralizing 4-win season.
Of the 22 starters on the depth chart last week against Vanderbilt, all but two graduate transfers (WR Van Jefferson, DT Adam Shuler) and one freshman (CB Trey Dean III) were part of last year’s team.
7. The Big Blue road ahead
Kentucky begins a push this week for what could be the most important month of football in the modern era of the program.
Two weeks after a gut punch loss at Texas A&M, Kentucky plays host to Vanderbilt in one of two games (at Missouri) it must win to set up the biggest game in program history. That’s not hyperbole, that’s reality.
“We know what’s ahead of us, and we know it begins with (Vanderbilt),” UK tailback Benny Snell Jr. said. “We’re not happy about what happened (at Texas A&M). We’re ready to go play again. We need to go play again.”
There’s no secret to what’s on the line over the second half of the season. Kentucky will be favored in every game but one (Georgia), and could win its first SEC East Division title.
Doing that also likely means Kentucky would win 11 regular season games, tying the school record set by the 1950 team coached by Bear Bryant. The Wildcats have two double-digit win seasons in the history of the program, the other a 10-win season in 1977, the last time it posted a winning record in the SEC.
“We kind of got away from what makes us successful (against Texas A&M),” Snell said. “We’re going back to that. We’re going to be physical.”
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: This is the worst part about college football. We wait nine long months for it to get here, then it feels like it goes by in a matter of weeks. OK, a few months. Since we’re halfway through, who are your choices for player of the year and coach of the year?
Shirley: I feel your pain, but we’ll get through it together. Here are a handful of midseason superlatives:
Offensive Player of the Half Year: QB Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama
Defensive Player of the Half Year: LB Josh Allen, Kentucky
Coach of the Half Year: Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M
Freshman of the Half Year: DB Patrick Surtain II, Alabama
9. Numbers game
14: Just in case you’ve already heard enough about the important number circulating on The Plains (coach Gus Malzahn’s $32 million buyout), maybe this number is more comforting: 14, as in Ole Miss – this week’s Auburn opponent — is last of 14 teams in the SEC in total defense.
Just what the ailing Auburn offense needs.
The Rebels are 122nd in the nation in total defense (499.6 ypg.), 109th in scoring defense (35.1 ppg.) and 120th in pass defense (289.1 ypg.). If Auburn can’t find a few successful deep throws for QB Jarrett Stidham this time around, when will it this season?
10. Quote to note
LSU coach Ed Orgeron on the team’s fourth down success this season: “I was a little pissed at myself for not going for it against Florida down there on 4th-and-inches. We didn’t do a good job of game management. We’re gonna play aggressive now.”