Yeah, I was the guy who posted this yesterday: “This is a meeting between a top ten P5 squad and a bad FCS team. It won’t be close.”
Guess what? I still stand by what I wrote. Tip your cap to Nicholls, but yesterday never should have been close. (I’m sure those of you who were amused by my observation all went out and laid money on the underdog before the game, right?)
The tricky part today is trying to get a handle on why Georgia came uncomfortably close to a result that would have replaced Appalachian State-Michigan as the most embarrassing college football loss in quite some time without going full metal knee-jerk. That being said, I do think there are some conclusions that can be drawn from what we saw yesterday, conclusions that don’t necessarily doom this team to a disappointing 2016, but certainly bear close watching as the season progresses.
First of all, though, can we dispense with the notion that Nicholls exposed Georgia’s talent shortcomings? The Dawgs came out of the gate and scored in the game’s first two minutes. Later in the game, they took the lead back and scored a second touchdown in the space of less than two minutes. (They then proceeded in both situations to relax, but more on that in a bit.)
The game stats are lopsided, for the most part: Georgia outgained Nicholls by almost 140 yards, held the Colonels’ starting quarterback to less than a 50% completion rate, had significant advantages in yards per rush and in yards per pass attempt. The Dawgs had three of the four longest runs of the game, as well as the three longest pass receptions. Isaiah McKenzie took advantage of a poor punt to generate a 55-yard return.
You get the idea. And yet the end result was a 26-24 squeaker. Why? My gut has two theories.
- Poor mental preparation. Kirby bemoaned the movement in the polls as a factor in his team’s mindset. Unlike him, I don’t see practices, so I have no idea how much of an effect that really had. But as I mentioned before, it was pretty obvious after the first offensive and defensive series — Georgia scored easily and Nicholls’ quarterback made a bad throw that was intercepted — that Smart’s players didn’t take their opponent seriously. Even more amazingly, after Georgia scrambled to snatch back a lead it had embarrassingly let slip away in the third quarter, whatever intensity the players had managed to summon dissipated for good. Everyone, including the players, ought to realize that giving your best effort for, oh, say, about ten minutes out of a full sixty is a great way to keep an FCS opponent hanging around.
- Poor game planning. Man, the grumbling I’ve seen about shitty offensive linemen and receivers who can’t get separation! Maybe some of the people complaining the loudest should ask themselves how much can be expected out of linemen expected to block ten and even eleven players in the box (if you watch the replay, check out the alignment of the defense on the play when Chubb got stuffed just before Eason’s interception). Chaney wouldn’t throw out of that three tight end, one receiver set that he made heavy use of and rarely threw on first down. In other words, Nicholls saw what North Carolina tried to do against Georgia’s offense, sold out even harder and essentially was never made to pay a price for that. As far as receiver separation goes, maybe some of you can explain to me how a quarterback with the tenth-best yards per attempt average in the country can manage that without his receivers getting open. The question I have about the receivers is how they’re being deployed. McKenzie and Godwin are among the conference leaders in yards per catch, yet Godwin’s play is limited because he’s apparently not as robust a blocker as the coaches prefer. Color me puzzled by that.
The good news is that neither of those problems are insurmountable. Immature heads can be pulled out of asses and game plans can be changed. The bad news, if you want to call it that, is that there’s another factor in play, at least for the short run.
That factor is Kirby Smart’s mindset.
Some of you may recall in the wake of Richt’s dismissal that my preference was for Georgia to replace him with someone who had D-1 head coaching experience. McGarity’s preference ran in another direction and Georgia hired Kirby Smart. While there’s much about Kirby’s resume to respect and I can appreciate the energy he’s brought to Athens with regard to recruiting, it’s still a fact that coaching under Nick Saban isn’t the same thing as having experience running your own program. We recognize that for all of Jacob Eason’s talent, there’s still going to be a learning curve before he can be expected to be a competent SEC quarterback. Is it unreasonable to expect Kirby Smart to have any less of a learning curve to master?
I saw that comment yesterday, and my immediate visceral response to it was much the same as the one I had to Mark Richt’s “in the arena” line, a lame attempt to deflect attention away from the real problem. But upon further reflection, I think that’s unfair to Smart. If there’s one overriding sense I have of his basic coaching philosophy after two games (insert sample size warning here), it’s that he’s sincerely committed to an impose-your-will approach. Amass talent and use it to beat your opponent into submission. It worked during his time at Alabama and it intends to make it work at his Georgia gig. It’s not about whether that’s bad or good, it’s simply that it’s a change. It’s also unreasonable to expect that to happen overnight.
All well and good. A coach has gotta do what a coach has gotta do, I suppose. But while I’m tossing clichés around, it’s worth saying that a coach has gotta know his limitations, too. Quite frankly, what concerns me in the short run is that Smart doesn’t have enough experience yet to recognize what those limitations are.
I saw that reflected in several ways yesterday, particularly in the most astonishing decision of the game, the two-point play when Georgia retook the lead in the second half. It wasn’t just the decision to go for two that surprised me then; letting Eason run the quarterback draw in that situation was just as remarkable. In the wake of it failing, the whole thing struck me as Smart wanting a measuring stick to see how tough his offense and his quarterback could be. It also stuck me as the kind of thing a coach who can’t conceive of his team losing the game does.
Had Nicholls gotten the ball back after their last score and won the game on a last-second field goal, it would have been the mother of all payback moments. Lucky for Smart it didn’t come to that.
Even if you accept that situation as a learning moment, that doesn’t mean Smart doesn’t have a definite idea of how he wants to run this program. The offensive play calling was, to paraphrase a favorite Lexicon expression, Beyond Conservative. Whatever you think of Jim Chaney, he’s a little more creative than what we witnessed yesterday. The game plan we got was the game plan Smart wanted Missouri and Ole Miss to see, which was essentially nothing. Chaney operates in the universe Smart has him inhabit.
I’m not worried about Chaney, though. He’s been an assistant on many staffs; he knows how the game is played. What I am a little concerned about today is the wunderkind.
Jacob Eason didn’t play perfectly yesterday, but he didn’t play badly, either. With two games under his belt, he leads the SEC in passer rating and yards per pass attempt. Yet he found himself yanked after a late interception and saw his coaches put the fate of the game in the hands of Greyson Lambert. Again, I’m not there on the sideline or in practice, so I have no idea how this was presented, but it strikes me as something with the potential to affect Eason’s confidence. Nobody should reasonably expect a true freshman quarterback to play with the mindset that he’s just one screw up away from returning to the bench. Hopefully, that’s not the lesson being imparted to Eason.
So that’s where we are this morning. I don’t even want to hint at saying this means Smart’s going to be a disappointment. He deserves every opportunity, especially at this ridiculously early point in his career, to see his vision for Georgia football turned into a reality. I’m not judging Kirby Smart on dodging what would have been a disastrous loss for a newly minted head coach.
I’m also cognizant of what a determined, yet inexperienced, head coach likely means for the rest of 2016. There will be more ups and downs. What Smart deserves to be judged by is whether he’s got what it takes to make that vision of his turn into something better for Georgia football over the long haul. For that, it’s simply too early to tell.