Say what you want about the tenets of Georgia’s 2016 offensive strategy, dude, but when it comes to third-down conversion rates, at least it’s an ethos.
The bad news is that Georgia finished the 2016 season ranked 68th in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ rankings.
The good news is that you can make an argument that Georgia over-performed its S&P+ ranking of 68th.
Ron Higgins, of the New Orleans Times -Picayune, doesn’t seem to be buying into the continuation of a rebuilding phase for Georgia football. From his early 2017 SEC rankings comes this:
2016 record: 8-5 (beat TCU 31-23 in AutoZone Liberty Bowl), 4-4 tied for second in SEC East
Starters returning: 20 (7 offense, 11 defense, 2 special teams)
Outlook: The good news for second-year coach Kirby Smart is his team’s growing pains acclimating to a new staff and system are over. Even better news is that senior-to-be running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, a duo that combined for 1,970 yards and 12 TDs last season, both decided not to declare for the NFL Draft. They’ll be paired again with rising sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason, who started 12 of 13 games last year, alternating moments of beyond his years brilliance and first-year blunders. Then, combine a defense that returns every starter with an incoming recruiting class that figures to be in the nation’s top 5, and Georgia should climb to the top of the East Division.
Schedule: Game 2 for Georgia at Notre Dame on Sept. 9 is a good early season gauge. Georgia’s toughest league games are all away at Tennessee, vs. Florida in Jacksonville and at Auburn.
Yes, that would be number two, with a bullet. The only quibble I have with his outlook is the first sentence, which I’m not sure I would credit with being a given.
By the way, the only other conference team that returns as many starters as the Dawgs do is Kentucky. On paper, this is a team that should contend. Of course, Georgia fans know well how much that paper is worth sometimes.
Confession time: my Georgia football viewing habits have changed over the past two seasons.
Oh, it’s not that I stopped going to games or watching the live broadcasts. Didn’t miss a one. I’ve even resorted to the radio on that rare occasion when I had no other option.
But I used to indulge in recording everything and going back to watch it all again in the offseason. Then, in the aftermath of the 2015 season, about a month after the bowl game, I realized I had no interest in reliving any part of that dull grind. Out went it all.
2016? Well, after the Nicholls game, I stopped recording every game. It didn’t seem worth the effort. As for those few that were archived, I didn’t even wait for the bowl game to delete them from my DVR. His-to-ree.
In the end, it wasn’t so much that last season in its totality was good or bad — certainly it contained moments of both — as it was uninvolving. (Shades of 2015.) Even in earlier seasons when Georgia couldn’t get out of its own way to win a division title, there were special times worth savoring again, like Clemson 2014, or the 2013 South Carolina, LSU and Tennessee games. What’s the 2016 analogue to those? Maybe North Carolina, but that was more about Chubb’s triumphant return than anything else. Auburn? It was great being there, but in the aftermath, how excited could I get about a game that didn’t feature a single offensive touchdown?
2016 was the year in which the lows were a lot lower than the highs were high. In fact, it’s hard to think of another season where the lows were this bad, both from a quality and quantity standpoint.
I think, though, that the best way to reflect upon this past season is to see it (I hope) as the culmination of a trend that’s played out over three seasons. As Bill Connelly noted in the wake of Richt’s firing,
After a miserable October, his team rallied. The Dawgs didn’t finish playing top-10-caliber ball, but they won four in a row. That means they’re a bowl win away from a fourth 10-win season in five years (and a 10th in 14). In an obvious down year. Most programs would pay millions for this type of disappointment.
After falling out of the F/+ top 40, the Bulldogs are back up to 34th. Yes, that’s a bad performance for a program with Georgia’s potential, even one that loses its offensive coordinator and starting quarterback in the offseason and one of the best players in the country (Nick Chubb) to injury midway.
But this poor performances comes on the heels of four consecutive F/+ top-15 finishes (13th in 2011, seventh in 2012, 14th in 2013, fourth in 2014).
5. Here are the other programs that pulled that off in that same span: Alabama.
Georgia’s 2016 F/+ finish? 59th. So things haven’t been heading in the right direction for a while now. It’s easy to lay some of that at the feet of Richt’s failings in roster management and just because it’s easy doesn’t mean that isn’t a fair cop. But I think there’s another place at which to point the finger in explanation.
See if you can spot another trend.
- 2014: Grantham is replaced by Pruitt.
- 2015: Bobo is replaced by Schottenheimer.
- 2016: Richt is replaced by Smart, who replaces both coordinators.
For a program that boasted a rare degree of coaching stability for several years, those are a lot of major disruptions in a short period. Most of the players who suited up for Georgia this past season were playing for their second coordinator in three seasons. Throw in a steady stream of position coach changes and whatever the hell they did on special teams and that’s a recipe for confusion. It’s harder to play inspired football when you’re not always sure of what you’re doing.
Assuming no staff changes are coming, this next season will be the first year since 2013 where everyone returns on the same page. I think it’s reasonable to assume that’s a good thing. Add to that other factors I’ve touched on before, like a rising talent base that should end any talent gap with its East rivals Georgia had suffered from last year and a less than stout schedule, and it’s not unfair to expect Georgia’s advanced stats to reverse that pattern of decline.
That’s all stuff for another day and post, though. In the meantime, let’s sift through some things that went right, some that didn’t and some that went way off the tracks to crash spectacularly.
- On offense, the development of three true freshman, Eason, Nauta and Ridley, along with Nick Chubb’s return (Chubb finished seventh in rushing in the conference) were all heartening developments. Sony Michel was Sony Michel. Isaiah McKenzie turned into a legitimate offensive threat.
- On defense, the development of the young d-line talent was the best news of all. Right behind that was the emergence of Roquan Smith at ILB. Maurice Smith transferred in from Alabama and was a major contributor at the Star position. Deandre Baker looks like a keeper at corner.
- Special teams? Two words: Rodrigo Blankenship.
- Turnover margin was +8 for the season.
- The offensive line has to lead this list. It struggled all season.
- A close second was red zone defense.
- Punting was another subpar area of need.
- Allowing Tennessee’s Hail Mary to succeed.
- Ditto the Georgia Tech comeback.
- The failed attempt to plug the round peg of Georgia’s offensive philosophy into the square hole that was Georgia’s personnel.
- Special teams coverage and return games were beyond awful. Wasting a talent like McKenzie’s bordered on criminally negligent.
- Clock management was exactly what you’d expect from a first year head coach who took hands on to the max.
- The Nicholls and Ole Miss games.
Contrary to what some of you think, I’m optimistic about Georgia’s chances in 2017. I’ve mentioned a few reasons to thing things are on the upswing, but the single thing that impressed me the most in 2016 was the decision by the four rising seniors to stay Dawgs. It’s not just the shot of experience and talent that gives the team next season; it’s the vote of confidence those players have in their head coach. That gives me some hope that, at a minimum, we won’t go through points as low as some we suffered through in ’16.
Buuuut… as a final thought, though, if anything cautions me about jumping too far off the cliff with my enthusiasm, it’s that perhaps the most disappointing thing about the 2016 regular season is that Georgia did not steadily improve over its course. Instead, the year was a series of fits and spurts… and, as the Georgia Tech game demonstrated, more fits. Is that evidence of growing pains, or a coaching staff that never really settled in? My heart says the former, but my head says the jury is still out. Right now, all we can do is hope for better times soon. That’s what you do after throwaway years.
Wasn’t a big fan of Steely Dan when the group moved into an even jazzier phase, but early Dan makes me swoon. And “My Old School” is the swooniest for me. Here’s a very badly synced version of the song:
One of the reasons for my swoonery is Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s guitar wizardry. He left the band after its third album, when Becker and Fagan decided to stop touring, which is another reason my interest declined.
Anyway, as a bonus, here’s a version of the song performed recently by Baxter.
Dude can still bring it.
By the way, speaking of Baxter, there’s this, too.
Just send the damned check in, okay?
Perhaps sensing that he’s going to have more time on his hands in his new Alabama AD job (since management of the football program boils down to “anything else you need, Nick?”), Greg Byrne has big plans elsewhere.
“I have always paid attention to things Coach Saban has said from afar because they are always well thought out,” Byrne said. “Before I knew this opportunity was going to come along, I would always listen to what he had to say. I think he cares very much about the University of Alabama, but he also cares very much about the game of football. So, as an athletic director in an evolving time, I think the platform you have here that you can have a voice in how college athletics is shaped for the future.”
Byrne seems eager to use his. In the SEC, he has established relationships with several athletic directors, including Mitch Barnhart at Kentucky, Florida’s Scott Stricklin, Mississippi State’s John Cohen and Jeff Long at Arkansas. He’s also close to SEC commissioner Greg Sankey. With a background in fundraising, Byrne knows how to lobby — a skill that could come in handy if he, Saban and the university attempt to advance a particular cause.
“The stage here at Alabama allows you that,” Byrne said.
Greg McGarity smiles and nods knowingly. Those Open Records laws don’t re-write themselves, you know.