It strikes me that Chris Low’s midseason assessment of Georgia is a fair one. It’s hard to argue with this:
… The Bulldogs ended their skid Saturday with an impressive 41-14 battering of Tennessee, and getting Green back has made a huge difference on offense. The offensive line has not been up to par, at least not to the level that was expected out of this veteran group. Georgia went with a new lineup against Tennessee, including true freshman Kenarious Gates at guard. The primary problem on defense has been that the Bulldogs are allowing too many big plays. That and a defensive front that lacks size. Still, this is a team that’s talented enough to turn it around during the second half of the season…
Speaking as somebody who thought the Dawgs would be no worse than 4-2 by now, I thought it might be useful to go back and explore some of my preseason assumptions, as well as look at some of the in season developments to see if I can get a handle on where things are headed over the second half of 2010.
First, my preseason worries and expectations:
- Georgia Tech 2009 as a template for the offense. Line up behind an experienced offensive line, don’t ask a green redshirt freshman quarterback to do too much and grind your way to victory: the coaches thought this, the pundits thought this and I did, too. There’s no other way to say it except to acknowledge that last year’s result in Atlanta turned out to be a complete mirage. The offensive line, as Low notes, has been a disappointment and the running backs have been inconsistent for several reasons (including suspensions). Carlton Thomas, who averages more than a half yard less a carry than Ealey and more than a yard and a half less a carry than King, continued to get significant carries until his injury. He’s simply not an every down back and it’s foolish for the coaches to insist otherwise. The result is that Georgia is tenth in the SEC in rushing and only Arkansas has scored fewer touchdowns on the ground. Second half prediction: Fuggedaboutit. As solid as the win over Tennessee was, the ground game was nothing special. Going forward, Georgia’s best chance to produce offensively lies with its quarterback, not its running backs, which leads us into the next point.
- Starting a redshirt freshman quarterback will cost Georgia a game or two. I think it has, but not for the reason most thought would be the case before the season. About the precocious Murray, Low says this: “There’s not a more promising young quarterback in this league.” He’s right. What’s hurt Georgia in the won-loss department is that it’s taken several games for his coaches to realize that and adjust the game plan accordingly. The adjustments we saw last Saturday would have made a difference against South Carolina, Arkansas and Mississippi State, all of which successfully attacked Georgia’s I-formation running game with gap-stuffing run blitzes. Georgia looked better using the pass to set up the run and playing out of multiple formations. Second half prediction: The Tennessee game plan hinted that Richt and Bobo understand where the strength of the offense lies, with that quarterback we were all concerned with in August. If they commit to Murray the playmaker and the reshuffled offensive line settles in, the offense has a chance to be pretty good, even with King missing the next two games. (It helps that the Dawgs are playing the two worst run defenses in the conference while he’s out.)
- New defensive scheme and new defensive coaches meant a work-in-progress defense with early season lapses. The third big preseason assumption has pretty much been spot on. The problems have been both in personnel, as Low notes in his comment about the d-line (can you imagine what Atkins could have done in Grantham’s scheme this year?), and in execution, most glaringly reflected in Georgia’s abysmal rank at the bottom of the SEC in opponents’ third down conversion percentage. That stat is even more stark when you break it down: 31% in the wins and 50% in the losses (for some perspective, that latter figure on its own would rank 113th nationally, with the likes of San Jose State and Akron). Safety play in pass coverage has been especially disappointing. Second half prediction: Hell, your guess is as good as mine. The linebackers have been consistent, but that obviously hasn’t been enough for the defense to succeed. The d-line had its best game of the season on Saturday, but how much of that was due to Tennessee’s weak o-line? The safeties are going to continue to be exposed in the absence of a consistent pass rush, and right now, the only player who you can call consistent in that department is Justin Houston, whom Low is right to call the first half defensive MVP. One good thing is that there’s only one offense the Dawgs look to face in the remaining six games that you can label scary. It’s doubtful that’s enough to hang your hat on, though.
- Special teams, baby! Surprisingly, it’s been a mixed bag. If anything, Blair Walsh is having a better year than last season. Showing Fabris the door has paid off handsomely in the kickoff game, as Georgia ranks third in the conference in opponents’ kickoff returns. But Drew Butler isn’t dominating the conference as he did in 2009. The punt return game hasn’t been anything special. Neither has the kickoff return game. Overall, nothing’s been particularly bad, but it hasn’t been what I hoped. Second half prediction: I’m optimistic. There isn’t an area that’s been as horrible as kickoffs were last season and I have to think that Boykin is too good at what he does not to break out sooner or later. If I have to bitch about something, it would be how passive the team is in punt blocking, but that’s something the coaches seem to be comfortable with, for some reason.
- Regression to the mean. They’re currently +0.33 per game in turnover margin, which sure beats where they were last year. The surprise is that it hasn’t made a dent in the won-loss record. That’s partly due to bad timing: Georgia’s fumbling on offense at a lower rate than last season, but when the Dawgs fumble, it’s sure been a doozy, hasn’t it? For all the talk about being more aggressive, the defense still isn’t doing better at fumble recovery than was the case in 2009. But the other thing is that, unlike last year, other areas of the team haven’t been picking up the slack, as Georgia hasn’t won a game so far in which it hasn’t had an advantage in turnover margin. Second half prediction: They’ve replaced the Cox turnover machine with Murray, which has been huge, but Ealey needs to get his act together. On defense, it all comes back to getting pressure on the quarterback – can they get more than Houston to contribute? They’ll finish much better than last year, so you have to think it’ll wind up adding to the win column sooner or later.
As for in season surprises,
- The A.J. Green suspension. I’m not sure which was bigger, that Green missed four games, or that the Colorado game showed how much the team missed him. I initially pooh-poohed the suggestion that his absence was the difference in any of the first three losses, but what happened on the field in Boulder made me rethink that. And as I mentioned yesterday, I don’t think his return and Aaron Murray’s passer rating improvement are coincidental. Second half prediction: Well, I doubt he’ll be suspended again, so as long as he stays healthy, he’ll be big.
- Personnel changes. One thing about a spectacularly crappy start – you’ve got a lot less to lose by exploring other options. I didn’t expect to see a true freshman starting on the offensive line, but there you go. I’ll be curious to see how much of a difference it makes this week trotting the same five guys out. On defense, it’s Geathers and Ogletree that I wonder about. Second half prediction: It can’t hurt.
Overall, running the table seems unrealistic, if only because I don’t see how they can deal with Cam Newton. But if they continue to get traction with the next two games – and they’re clearly more talented than either Vandy or Kentucky – then at least they can roll into Jax and play a team that’s got to be questioning itself right now as much as Georgia is.
If there’s one heartening thing to take from a disappointing first half, it’s that as unfocused and uninspired as this team has played at times in the losses, it hasn’t been blown out of a game as was the case in every one of the last three seasons. Maybe you think that’s small consolation for a 2-4 record, and I won’t argue with that, but to me it hints that Grantham, in particular, is making more headway on his side of the ball than we care to recognize.