2018 Georgia at LSU

There was some discussion this offseason about the loudest Sanford Stadium has been in recent years. My vote came easy – the loudest single moment I’ve experienced in Sanford came when Todd Gurley brought the opening kickoff back against Auburn in 2014.

You’ll remember how narrative-heavy that moment was.

Todd had been suspended four games for reasons too petty to remind you of and in his absence the Dawgs got throttled in Jacksonville. As they’d already notched an early-season loss to SC in week two, that Dawgs team had lost control of their destiny in the East. The fans knew it and responded like only Dawgs fans would. They showed up in droves prepared to ruin Auburn’s night.

When Todd broke through all of the angst and frustration of a snatched-away season evaporated.

The lid blew off the stadium.

The second loudest moment I’ve experienced at Sanford was equally fueled by narrative.

Zach Mettenberger, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry, and the LSU Tigers showed up to Sanford in late September of 2013 an undefeated football team with title aspirations. The Dawgs had dropped a game in week one to Clemson, but were still hunting for a title shot themselves.

Besides his mom, there wasn’t a soul among the 93k people in the stands that day that didn’t want to see Mettenberger, the misbegotten local cast-off, buried.

To his credit, he played a helluva game and had an opportunity to take the lead with two minutes left to play in regulation.

My voice — I’m not exaggerating — has never been completely the same after the fourth quarter of that game. Todd Gurley breaking away on the opening kickoff against Auburn in ’14 may have been the loudest single moment I’ve experienced at Sanford, but the second half of that game against LSU was the loudest sustained noise I’ve ever experienced at a sporting event. Every person in the stadium that day was invested in effecting the outcome of the game, and they did.

On the first play after the Dawgs had taken the lead — less than two minutes left, the crowd in full throat — Leonard Floyd wrapped around on a stunt and hit Mettenberger as hard and as violently as the game allows.

The student section lost it.

There were red pom-poms raining from the sky.

This weekend marks the Tigers first opportunity at revenge since that game in ’13 and it’s largely a role reversal.

This time the Dawgs go to Death Valley the undefeated team, slated to play the one-loss Tigers. I think if you asked most Dawgs fans, any animosity they might’ve felt towards LSU back then has largely faded. The cherub, Coach O, is about as lovable an opposing coach as you’ll find and the personalities of the past — Tyrann Mathieu, Mettenberger, Beckham Jr. — have all moved on. The Tigers are a worthy opponent and a fine midseason test for the Dawgs.

On the other side, ain’t nobody in Baton Rouge feeling any kind of love for the Dawgs. A week after an exhausting loss to Florida, the Tigers can’t afford another.

They’re backed into a corner and plan to hit us in the mouth.

Five Factors

My dream at the end of this season is to publish a post that can act as an UGA advanced statistical profile reference whenever you read one of these posts. I’ll include examples from this Dawgs team within so that you can refer back to it as you read future posts. For the moment though, I’ll walk through each one briefly as I go.

Hats off to Bill Connelly at SB Nation for his lovely, lovely advanced stat profiles and  SQL know-how. He’s a Missouri Tiger, but we’ll grant him that fatal flaw in light his invaluable contribution to advanced analytics for college football. You can reference Georgia’s current advanced stat profile here if you are hungry for numbers.

In general due to small sample sizes, advanced analytics in football have trouble being predictive, though a composite analysis of five factors of the game does as good a job as we can hope for at being both predictive in individual contests and for the season as a whole.

If you can be efficient, explosive, establish a field position advantage, finish scoring opportunities, and land on the right side of turnover margin you stand a winning chance of being pretty good.

Bill takes the five factors — success rate, explosiveness, average field position, points per scoring opportunity inside the 40-yard-line, and turnover margin — and builds a composite metric he calls S&P+ that we can track for teams as they progress throughout the season.

How’s LSU lookin’?

Like a top-25 team that isn’t quite a top-10 or 15 team.

LSU’s defense resembles the Dawgs’ in that they’re elite at preventing the big play — they rank 6th in defensive explosiveness — but unlike the Dawgs, they’re also decent at keeping offenses behind the chains. They rank 58th in success rate, allowing opposing offenses to gain the necessary yardage only 39% of the time.

That might not seem intimidating, but a decent success rate against and an elite ability to avoid the big play leaves you with a recipe for winning defense. If the Dawgs defense had a 39% success rate against I promise you we’d be dancing in the streets. Excellent defensive starting field position has been in the Tigers favor as well. Opposing offenses on average are beginning drives inside the 25.

Any way you look at it, they make you earn it.

On offense though, they are anything but elite and struggle in every area. They rank 93rd in explosiveness, 78th in success rate, 86th in expected turnover margin, and 53rd in points per scoring opportunity netting less than 5 points for each trip inside the 40.

Whether through the air or on the ground it’s an offense that’s had trouble moving the ball and scoring when it’s had opportunities.

That all in mind, I can’t help but watch this team and think it’s just another version of the same LSU product we’ve been watching for more than a decade. Great/excellent defense paired with poor/mediocre offense. Their recipe for beating teams is to out-physical them for four quarters, remain stingy in the red zone, and force turnovers.

It’s an older brand of football that works for them some of the time.

Dawgs on Offense

This Dawgs offense hasn’t completely self-actualized yet, but it’s starting to feel close.

It hasn’t always been pretty, but the Dawgs have gained the necessary yardage 54% of the time — good for 5th in the country — and rank 16th in explosiveness. Despite slow starts and untimely penalties, they’ve flashed in spots and been able to finish. This is an offense with all the tools to be championship-caliber.

Can the Dawgs run base offense on LSU’s defense?

Early on, probably not. But I wouldn’t expect them to try.

You’ll remember that the Dawgs always work to get back “home” with their offensive scheme. “Home” looks like inside zone, outside zone, and iso.

Inside Zone:

Outside Zone:

Iso:

They don’t necessarily need to start there in order to dictate and score, but it’s where Kirby and Jim Chaney always want to get back to. They think that over the course of a game, a consistent downhill running attack will outlast most defenses. South Carolina, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt would agree.

While Dawgfans have lamented the pace of play in recent weeks, the numbers speak for themselves. The Dawgs rank 7th in the country in rushing marginal efficiency (based on down and distance, they are elite at gaining the necessary yardage when running the ball) and are gaining at least 5 yards a carry 59% of the time.

Fans outside of the SEC will decry the Dawgs for playing a JV schedule so far, but even against inferior opponents — and with a shuffling offensive line — that’s impressive.

Dave Aranda’s defensive strategy at LSU resembles what you’ve grown familiar with from Kirby and Mel Tucker.

Aranda will show two, three, and four-man defensive fronts with either a single high free safety playing cover-3, or two high safeties playing cover-4. On early downs you’ll see “tite” three-man fronts designed to clog inside running lanes and free up inside linebackers to flow to the ball. It’s a defense designed to allow unblocked players to be aggressive, dictate mismatches, and force turnovers.

They’ve been ok at it so far. They haven’t affected the passer as much this season as in recent years (72nd in sack rate) but they’ve made up for it by completely snuffing out big plays (6th in explosiveness against) and playing consistently against the run (46th in rushing success rate against) and pass (44th).

From a personnel perspective this LSU defense reminds me of what the Dawgs saw in last season’s SEC Championship game against Auburn. They have a couple stud interior defensive linemen in Rashard Lawrence and Breidon Fehoko, an elite interior linebacker in Devin White, and a couple elite defensive backs in Greedy Williams and Grant Delpit.

There’s skill at every level, but not on the bench. They’ve struggled in both recruiting and with injuries.  It’s a talented starting 11, but there’s not much spell them with. That in mind, what do we know so far?

They intentionally clog interior running lanes on early downs, they play an overly aggressive style of defense intended to force as many turnovers as possible, and they lack depth at virtually every position on defense. I’ll add one more: while they have length in the secondary, both of their starting corners — Williams and junior Kristian Fulton — are at or below 190 lbs. You see where this is going.

The Dawgs will attack the edge early to beat this team.

If you remember back to the SEC Title game, the Dawgs forced the ball to the edge on 15 of the first 20 offensive plays. By kicking the ball out to the edge on swing passes to backs and receivers, bubble screens, and sweeps they triggered all of Auburn’s interior defenders to run in pursuit on every play. The corners were forced to be involved on virtually every tackle.

It’s a strategy designed to tire out a defense and weaken them from the outside in.

Much has been made this season about how bought-in the receiving corps has been with blocking. They’ll get rewarded for it again this week. Involving the corners early on all tackles and getting a body on them for every running play will soften this secondary quickly. It’s been rare this season that the Dawgs have passed first to set up the run. But once they’ve asserted themselves on the edge, these receivers could stand to have a day.

While the Dawgs likely won’t be able to run base offense to start, they’ll be able to pass in order to set it up in the second half. You saw Chaney flex the ingredients of that strategy in both the Tennessee and Vanderbilt games the past two weeks. They practiced tempo and passed the ball on early downs. All of those elements will be necessary to move the ball on LSU.

Once the Dawgs have managed to force the Tigers to dip into their bench, they’ll be able to lean on them with the inside running attack.

Justin Fields

There’s been a lot of discussion about Justin Fields in the two weeks following the Tennessee game, after which Kirby confirmed the Dawgs have “no plan” for Fields. It’s not that there isn’t a plan in place here, just that it isn’t something that is decided before the game (even if it was, you wouldn’t know about it). Every time Fields has entered the game has been a result of circumstance.

Against Tennessee, the Dawgs had opportunities to beat the Vols vertically and missed.

After they whiffed on their shots downfield, Tennessee walked extra defenders into the box and made running the ball difficult in the interior. Bringing Fields into the game was the easiest way for Chaney to flip the numbers advantage back in the Dawgs favor.

This weekend against LSU you might see the same strategy again, and you might see it early.

Both Kirby and Chaney know they’ll be taking the team into an awful crowd environment. The first two drives of the game will be as much about disarming the crowd as attacking LSU’s defense. The Dawgs have notched only 21 first quarter points over the last three weeks. That will need to change.

The first two drives will be a dance between Chaney and Aranda. If for some reason the Dawgs have trouble completing passes on early downs in the first 20 plays and LSU sells out in order to take the run away, Fields could enter the game.

Scoring early points is that essential.

Blind Spots?

Both the stats and the eye test will tell you that the only trouble the Dawgs have had on offense has been protecting Jake Fromm in obvious passing situations.

On passing downs they clock in at 120th in the nation, allowing a sack nearly 15% of the time. They’ve combatted that by improving their average third down distance to 6.6 yards (good for 23rd in the country) and by managing most of their first downs on 1st and 2nd down. Staying ahead of the chains keeps the Dawgs out of trouble. I’m reaching though — this offense is really good.

Dawgs on Defense

The emergence of Jordan Davis last weekend against Vanderbilt feels a lot like one of two things to me. This is either the Dawgs cramming for a test the night before, or it’s the product of many months of quiet preparation.

One thing’s for certain: he ain’t gonna make things any worse.

It’s been hard to avoid the word “concerning” when reading about the Dawgs run defense over the course of the last six weeks. I don’t like that word — may as well just call it “bad”, IMO — but it speaks to the larger purpose of why I write about Georgia football. When you can define the limitations of something, you can set expectations for it.

You can try to fake run defense as long as you want, but if you don’t have the dudes, you don’t have the dudes.

I want to give Julian Rochester internet daps for his effort since he showed up at Georgia. He’s a capable player who has worked really hard to get into playing shape. When he shifts down to play three-technique defensive tackle he plays just fine, but the poor guy is in the wrong spot trying to lock down the nose. With Rochester getting pushed back in the interior and the inside linebackers — RIP Juwan Taylor in the gif below — either over-pursuing or arriving late, this team hasn’t shown itself capable of stopping the run on early downs.

The numbers agree.

The Dawgs rank 95th in rushing marginal efficiency given up, and they are allowing at least five yards a carry 50% of the time. That might be worth repeating.

Half the time opposing offenses choose to run the ball, they gain at least five yards.

Great googly moogly.

It’s not helping the cause on 3rd down either. The Dawgs are 127th in the FBS in average 3rd down distance (5.9 yards). That’s really the saving grace of this defense. Even though they’ve been losing repeatedly on 1st and 2nd down, they’ve been able to find a way on 3rd. They’re allowing only a 31% success rate against on 3rd down, and rank 23rd in 3rd-and-long success rate against, 21st in 3rd-and-medium, and 6th in 3rd-and-short.

You have to give them credit. They may bend, but they’ve been knuckling up with their backs against the wall.

Some of our older brethren in the stands may be reaching for their heart medication more often than they’d like, but it’s working. Whether it will continue to against better competition remains to be seen.

Fortunately, they won’t be facing better competition this weekend.

I kid you not, Tennessee has a better offense in nearly every statistical category than LSU does.

For an offense predicated on establishing physicality and running the ball, LSU is only ranked 65th in rushing marginal efficiency (to Tennessee’s 56th). Whether run or pass, on standard downs they are only getting the necessary yardage 46% of the time. They require an average of 7.6 yards on third down and have converted only  33% of their third downs thus far — good for 106th in the country.

Standard down: First downs, second-and-7 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer, and fourth-and-4 or fewer. These are the downs in which the offense could conceivably either run or pass and therefore has an overall advantage over the defense. Offenses typically run about 60 percent of the time on standard downs.

Their feature back, Nick Brossette, is a solid player but he already has plenty of tread on his tires. Through six games he has the same number of carries (118) as D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield combined. Joe Burrow is a serviceable quarterback but they haven’t been able to keep him upright, and even when they have he’s only notched a 53% completion percentage.

I could speak more to strategy here, but I doubt you’ll see much different from what you already have against Tennessee, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt. The Dawgs will rely on their secondary to limit all big plays and commit any resources they can to stopping the run.

Can the Tigers run base offense on the Dawgs?

Probably. Base offense for LSU looks like Iso and Power plays out of Pro-style sets. If Jordan Davis can provide a leverage point at nose on early downs — even just on 1st downs — that would go a long way.

If the Dawgs find a way to get Joe Burrow into third and medium-or-long, the Tigers patchwork offensive line hasn’t proven that they can protect him. Even if the Dawgs don’t bring extra pressure, I’m not confident Burrow could complete passes when faced with a defense that drops seven into coverage.

This matchup comes down to winning first down. The Dawgs haven’t proven the ability to do it yet this season.

Maybe this is the week.

S&P Prediction and Game Grade

S&P+ gets reflected as a number – that number is an adjusted scoring margin. It’s an expected point total against an average team on this year’s scoring curve in the FBS.

To date Georgia ranks third in the country in total S&P+ at 25.2.

LSU is ranked 19th at 13.6.

S&P+ predicts a two-score game, with the Dawgs favored by about 12 points.

Frankly, I don’t see it being that close and with a couple early scores could see it even getting out of hand. However, weird things happen and in two-score games, it’s worth considering the fringe factors that can dictate outcomes.

Penalties

The Dawgs rank 94th in the FBS averaging 64.4 penalty yards per game.

LSU ranks 85th at 62.6.

You could call that a push – but with both teams proving undisciplined so far, they’re playing a fool’s game. If one can iron this area out they stand a heavy advantage over the other.

Field Position

When Georgia is on offense: The Dawgs average starting field position on offense is the 29-yard-line (89th in the country). On defense, LSU has managed to force opposing offenses to start just inside of the 25 (good for 5th). Advantage LSU.

Worth noting the Dawgs average starting field position has been influenced heavily by penalties and miscues on special teams. Unforced errors aren’t doing them any favors. A winning gameplan for LSU looks like making the Dawgs drive the length of the field.

When LSU is on offense: LSU starts their drives on average the 31-yard-line (38th in the country). The Dawgs defense has begun it’s drives on average at the opponent’s 27 (31st). We’ll call this a push. Jake Camarda had his first great punt in a few weeks on Saturday against Vandy.

An inconsistent freshman punter in his first truly meaningful action — in Death Valley no less — isn’t appealing. Here’s hoping the Dawgs won’t need him much.

Turnovers

LSU has benefited from some pretty excellent turnover luck this season. Their differential between expected turnover margin and actual turnover margin would’ve equated to 4.8 points per game. If the ball starts bouncing the other way they could be in for some trouble.

The Dawgs on the other hand have roughly equivalent expected turnover margin and actual turnover margin. We know Jake has had trouble holding onto the ball this season, but the Dawgs have managed to pounce on those and force enough turnovers of their own to offset them.

From Football Study Hall’s Advanced Stats Glossary:

Turnover Margin

What a team’s turnover margin would have been if it had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in its games, and if the INTs-to-PDs for both teams was equal to the national average, which is generally around 21-22 percent.

If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles, dropped interceptions, or other lucky/unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team’s luck was particularly good or bad and might even out either in the next season or in the rest of the current one.

Both quarterbacks take pretty good care of the ball. Though Burrow made a bad decision last weekend against Florida when he was playing from behind in the fourth quarter. If they Dawgs establish a lead early, that would force Burrow’s hand.

I’m putting the arrow in the Dawgs favor here.

Scoring Opportunities

When the Dawgs are on offense: The Dawgs offense averages 5.23 points per trip inside the 40 (30th in FBS). LSU’s defense is ranked 59th in the same category, allowing 4.36 points.

The Dawgs rank 18th in success rate between the 21 and 30-yard line (51% conversion) and 9th between the 11 and 20-yard line (58%). Most of their scoring plays so far this season have come from those distances. They haven’t been too hot inside the 10 (42%), but there haven’t been very many opportunities — their efficacy at the goal line remains to be seen.

On the other side, the Tigers rank 81st in success rate allowed between the 21 and 30 (45%), and 86th between the 11 and 20 (42%).

Dawgs get the nod here from the statistical perspective.

From a strategy perspective, I’d still give it to them. With the speed they have out of the slot and backfield and size they can place on the outside, it will be difficult for LSU to matchup in the red zone.

When LSU is on offense: LSU is getting 4.82 points per scoring opportunity (53rd in FBS) whereas the Dawgs D is allowing only 3.76 (22nd). Indeed, bend don’t break comes through here as well.

Between the 21 and 30, LSU ranks 39th with a 48% success rate. The Dawgs rank 5th, allowing the necessary yardage only 25% of the time. Between the 11 and the 20, LSU has a 36% success rate (90th in FBS) and the Dawgs are giving it up 63% of the time (128th). First and goal is a push with both teams performing poorly.

If they can keep them out beyond the 20, the arrow goes to the Dawgs. If not, anybody’s guess.

Final Thoughts

Great teams get tested. The 2017 Georgia Bulldogs were a great team that got their world rocked in Auburn, Alabama in November before winning the SEC title and the Rose Bowl and December and January. The 2018 Dawgs haven’t yet had that opportunity and maybe this weekend in Death Valley is it.

I liked what CKS had to say after Jeremiah Holloman dropped the ball before making it into the endzone in Columbia.

“It’s just a disrespect for the ball and your teammates.”

Indeed — JJ is a great player and I’m sure felt terrible, but you can appreciate the greater point. There are rough edges around this year’s team that haven’t yet been ironed out. Unforced errors have thwarted potential scoring opportunities, handicapped field position, and resulted in points for opponents. Sometimes it takes getting punched in the mouth for the message to sink in.

A road test in week 7 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana will promise plenty of those.

I like to grade games before they happen as either games we should expect to win, or games in which we’ll need to compete like hell (where a win is anything but certain). Even in a losing effort, if they play a great game it’s still something to be proud of. If this Dawgs team had played perfect (perfect up to the understood skill level of the team to this point) football coming into Saturday I wouldn’t have a problem labeling this a game you could expect to win.

But they haven’t yet and they have to go to Baton Rouge. There’s a part of me that’s hoping this game plays out tighter than I think it will. I’m hopeful the Dawgs will struggle a little bit against a worthy opponent so that they’re all forced to compete at a level they haven’t had to touch yet.

I’m putting this one in the “compete like hell” category.

Glory, glory!

 

2018: Georgia at Mizzou

Saturday’s matchup will be the eighth meeting between the Dawgs and Missouri, the seventh since the Tigers joined the SEC in 2012. Though the Dawgs relationship with Mizzou is still in it’s infancy, it has already produced a number of moments that stand out in my memory for better or worse.

Screen Shot 2018-09-20 at 9.43.11 AM
Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In 2012 you might remember Jarvis Jones was a Heisman candidate for a few minutes (in our minds) after the Dawgs bludgeoned the Tigers in their inaugural SEC matchup:

Then Bud Sasser broke our damn hearts on Homecoming in 2013:

Then in 2015, a week after Nick Chubb was lost for the season, we (maybe it was just me, I was cold as hell that entire game) froze through a brutal 9-6 victory in Sanford. All I remember beyond being freezing was that it capped off a terrible two weeks of Dawg fandom.

In 2016, we caught a glimpse of magic from our freshman quarterback, a player whom we all hoped to entrust with the keys to the program:

It ain’t exactly a rivalry — the Dawgs own a 6-1 record in the series overall — but it’s growing on me. In a short amount of time the two teams have traded a memorable series of blows. I haven’t managed a trip to Columbia since we started playing each other annually, but everyone I know that has gone has come back with a positive view of the program and the Missouri community. Football isn’t always about pleasantries — ask anyone with a pulse in Columbia…South Carolina — but it’s nice to share a few Saturday’s in the fall with folks who enjoy the spirit of the game and share a mutual love of alma mater.

It’s also nice when the football is meaningful and enjoyable to watch.

Last year’s matchup looks like a drubbing at first glance until you remember the teams were tied at 28 at the half. Blown coverages — and Emanuel Hall’s undeniable skill — got the Dawgs beat twice early and it wasn’t until late that they were able to put it away comfortably.

I think it also worth harkening back to how you were feeling as a fan on October 14, 2017. The Dawgs walked into Sanford that night the fourth-ranked team in the country. They’d managed to sneak by Notre Dame in week 2, and then went on rampage, beating the absolute snot out of Mississippi State, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt all on national television.

A small glimmer began shining in the corner of our eyes.

Last year’s contest against the Tigers was a litmus test for just how far that Dawgs team might have been capable of traveling. Injuries and transfers had left the Dawgs secondary depleted of depth, a significant question against their formidable quarterback, Drew Lock. In no small way, that game at Sanford issued foreshadowing on what was to come for the Dawgs last season — both the good and the bad.

I expect much the same for Saturday.

This year’s Tigers have the mark of a top-40 team so far, though the schedule up ahead looks gross.

In 2017 they made their mark by beating the hell out of the teams they were supposed to beat and wilting to everyone else. With road matchups coming against South Carolina, Alabama, and Florida and games against ascending Memphis and Kentucky programs sandwiched in between them, what looks like a top-40 team on paper now could look anything but at the beginning of November. For the moment though, on paper, Mizzou looks plenty dangerous enough to give any one of those teams (including the Dawgs) a disagreeable Saturday.

My eyes tell me the same.

Five Factors

My dream at the end of this season is to publish a post that can act as an UGA advanced statistical profile reference whenever you read one of these posts. I’ll include examples from this Dawgs team within so that you can refer back to it as you read future posts. For the moment though, I’ll walk through each one briefly as I go.

Hats off to Bill Connelly at SB Nation for his lovely, lovely advanced stat profiles and  SQL know-how. He is indeed a Missouri Tiger himself, but we’ll grant him that fatal flaw in light his invaluable contribution to advanced analytics for college football. You can reference Georgia’s current advanced stat profile here if you are hungry for numbers.

In general due to small sample sizes, advanced analytics in football have trouble being predictive, though a composite analysis of five factors of the game does as good a job as we can hope for at being both predictive in individual contests and for the season as a whole.

If you can be efficient, explosive, establish a field position advantage, finish scoring opportunities, and land on the right side of turnover margin you stand a winning chance of being pretty good.

Bill takes the five factors — success rate, explosiveness, average field position, points per scoring opportunity inside the 40-yard-line, and turnover margin — and builds a composite metric he calls S&P+ that we can track for teams as they progress throughout the season.

What’s Mizzou Lookin’ Like?

Not bad, but worth digging into.

Mizzou looks like a top-40 team on first glance. They rank 29th in total S&P+ through three weeks after decisive victories over UT Martin, a so-far disappointing Wyoming team (84th in S&P+), and a decent Purdue team (54th).

Screen Shot 2018-09-19 at 9.29.19 PM
Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 29th S&P+ grade is mostly inflated by a wildly efficient offense and not much else. “Success rate” is a measure of offensive efficiency — whether you get the necessary yardage to consider a play a “success” each down you have possession.

What constitutes a successful play? 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.

Mizzou’s offense ranks 9th in the country in success rate, gaining the necessary yardage 54% of the time. That’s damn good. You have to consider competition here, but a 54% success rate against air is hard enough.

They are moving the ball on people.

Their Isolated Points Per Play is also noteworthy. IsoPPP is used to measure explosiveness.  Whereas Mizzou ranked 6th in IsoPPP at the end of last season, they currently rank 74th. If you’ve watched Missouri football at all over the last couple years (or even this year) that is a head-scratcher. I’ve wondered if that might be to do with competition level for other teams across the FBS.

Early in the season, contenders — the Dawgs included — are running show on bottom-rung FBS and FCS schools and potentially inflating their respective explosiveness metrics. History and the eye test tell me this will change for Drew Lock and co. They carved Purdue’s defense apart last Saturday and the big play will be a central focus for the Dawgs defensive strategy.

Everything else here points to glaring weaknesses.

Offenses are averaging a 41% success rate on Missouri’s defense. They aren’t any better at preventing big plays, ranking 84th in IsoPPP. They are giving up nearly 5 points per scoring opportunity on average whenever they find themselves defending in their own territory (97th in the nation) and they’re only +1 in turnover margin to start the year.

About right for a Missouri team — highly efficient (likely explosive) offense paired with an absolute liability of a defense.

Dawgs on Offense

Where Missouri has a formidable offense three weeks into the season, the Dawgs have a championship-caliber one.

It doesn’t require pouring over advanced stats to see it — your eyes can tell you the Dawgs have been dictating on O — but it’s still fun to consider them. The Dawgs currently have a 55.6% success rate on offense, good enough for 6th in the country.

That is utterly nasty.

It is especially nasty when you pair it with 1.47 isolated points per play (11th in the country). Average starting field position is down (they rank 98th) in large part due to correctable punt-return mistakes last week, but the Dawgs are already +3 in turnover margin and are averaging 5.76 points per trip inside the 40. Laughably, the points per trip inside the 40 stat has them ranked 21st in the country, but when you consider their explosiveness, they haven’t needed to be within the 40 to score.

The Dawgs are trotting out disciplined, well-coached thoroughbreds at every position and it hasn’t taken very long into the month of September to start to show.

Can the Dawgs run base offense against Missouri’s defense?

The Dawgs run roughly the same three concepts out of a handful of different alignments and personnel packages: outside zone, inside zone, and iso. These constitute Jim Chaney’s base offense and the majority of the passing game is built out of these looks.

Outside Zone:

Inside Zone:

Iso (Ben Cleveland gets blown up, but Iso nonetheless):

So far the offense has been able to dictate on the ground.

From the perspective of advanced stats in the running game, you can arrive at an expected success rate for each play based on the down, distance required, and the yard line. If you take the team’s rushing success rate (remember: the overall ability of the team to get the necessary yardage – in this case when they choose to run) and measure that against expectation, you arrive at a rushing marginal success rate.

The Dawgs are elite in this category, performing 7.3% above expectation whenever they choose to run — good for 8th in the country.

The line gets a significant share of the credit here. Opportunity rate measures the amount of run plays in which the line performs well enough for backs to gain at least 5 yards. The Dawgs are doing so on 66% of all run plays. Further, backs are only getting tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage 8.6% of the time. To emphasize the point, check the opportunity rates for the three primary backs:

  • D’Andre Swift – 62.5%
  • Elijah Holyfield – 59.1%
  • Brian Herrien – 61.5%

Just to be clear that is the percentage of carries on which they are gaining at least five yards.

Damn.

So far Mizzou’s defensive front has managed to prevent big plays in the running game, but they rank 94th in the country in stops at or behind the line and are performing 11% beneath expectation when defending the run overall. While the Dawgs running game is capable of producing big plays, the greater goal is to cause the opposing defense conflict. If the Dawgs can dictate somewhat on the ground against Missouri’s defensive front causing them to walk extra defenders in the box, Coach Chaney will be able to expose them with speed in the passing game.

Mizzou does have at least one stud up front in Terry Beckner Jr. And Jordan Elliott and Kobie Whiteside have had solid starts to the year up front as well. A lot was made of their effort in thwarting the Purdue rushing attack, but Purdue is far from elite on the ground – certainly not in the same ballpark as Georgia.  This may not be a game for big plays in the running game early on, but the Dawgs shouldn’t have much trouble doing what they need to on the ground.

What if base offense is taken away?

Domination.

If Mizzou comes out with eight men in the box on Saturday, they will get abused in the passing game. They aren’t sacking the quarterback (121st in sack rate), they aren’t preventing big plays (93rd in passing marginal explosiveness), and, whether through fault of scheme or talent, they are leaving guys open (87th in completion rate against).

Athletically this is a mismatch on the outside. They just don’t have the horses to take the Georgia athletes away. If I had to guess, they know this and will do everything they can to manage the Dawgs running game with 5, 6, and 7 in the box.

Blind spots?

The Dawgs have struggled so far when getting into third down situations.

On average they’ve needed to gain 7.6 yards per third down and they’re only getting the necessary yardage on 31% of them. That really hasn’t mattered because they are dominating on first and second down and have managed leads early on in the games they’ve played. But the point remains – they’ve struggled when they’ve gotten off schedule.

They’re also giving up sacks 14.3% of the time on passing downs.

Passing down: Second-and-8 or more, third-and-5 or more, or fourth-and-5 or more.

Standard down: First downs, second-and-7 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer, and fourth-and-4 or fewer.

Missouri hasn’t demonstrated much disruption in the running game so far this season and with the Dawgs running the ball 63% of the time on standard downs, I don’t see it likely that the Dawgs are off-schedule too often in this game. Worth keeping an eye on all the same.

Offensive Outlook for Saturday

For the first time this season, I expect the Dawgs will flex the considerable talent they’ve been grooming on the offensive side of the ball. If I’m right and they focus on preventing the big play, Elijah Holyfield is performing at an elite level and could truly have a coming out party worthy of writing about. He’s averaging 9.6 “highlight” yards for every carry that has gained at least five yards. In other words, when he’s gotten space to operate, he’s capitalized in a big way.

If instead they focus on defending the run, it’ll be the usual suspects plus a few more. Hardman, Ridley, Simmons, maybe Roberston. Whichever plus-athletes Chaney decides to trot out will have a day.

Dawgs on Defense

A casual perusal of your favorite Georgia football fan forum will enrich you with all manner of takes and “FWIWs” and “IMOs” regarding the state of Georgia’s front seven.

To their credit, they aren’t one-sided.

One campaign sees the defensive line as a fatal flaw, continuously surrendering yardage on the ground and failing to affect the quarterback. The other camp draws attention to the nature of the offensive systems that the Dawgs have faced so far — ones that have emphasized quick releases and tempo. Both camps tend to agree the sample size of defensive snaps with the Dawgs starting 11 is too small to know for sure either way.

I mentioned in this season’s preview article that the best teams I’ve ever seen were dominant up front. They had matchup disadvantages at each level. Part of my role (and nature) is to be pragmatic and objective. As for the starters, I agree the available data set is too small to pass judgement.

The lack of serviceable depth up front though is not a characteristic often seen in championship-caliber teams. If a liability exists there, that debt will need to be absolved some other way.

Let’s not lose site of a strong defense overall.

The Dawgs rank 18th in defensive S&P+ and are doing it largely by preventing the big play. Bend-don’t-break ain’t Kirby’s style and I bet the concept is disturbing as hell to him, but that’s what it’s looked like so far.

The Dawgs rank 88th in success rate allowed — teams are getting the necessary yardage on 42.2% of all plays — but they’ve rarely gotten beat. Their 0.77 isolated points per play against ranks best in the entire country. They also rank 5th in points allowed per trip inside the 40, but we don’t have much to go on there — teams haven’t made it inside the 40 too often.

Walking into the season, the Dawgs secondary was undeniably the most athletically gifted they’ve had in Kirby’s tenure, but lacked in experience at the four primary spots. If they want to continue this strategy of bending, the responsibility of Richard Lecounte in center field becomes all the more essential. Saturday will be a huge test for him.

Can Mizzou run base offense on the Dawgs defense?

Base offense for Georgia involves the three run concepts I mentioned earlier. I call that base offense because it is basically a north star that Coach Smart and Coach Chaney always want to get back to. Even after they’ve been able to pass successfully and have yielded big plays from run action, the goal of the offense is to exhaust the defense physically until they can no longer compete. South Carolina was a perfect example of that:

As the saying goes, “There’s only three things that can happen when you pass, and two of them are bad.”

Missouri doesn’t live by that mantra.

I struggle to call anything they do on the ground their base offense. If anything they run the ball to give their lineman a break from pass blocking.

They spin the bean.

Run action is definitely a part of it — in fact, in the games I’ve watched this season I’ve noticed Lock holding his run action far longer than I ever remember him doing previously — but this offense is predicated on challenging and beating a defense vertically. Their formula for winning involves scoring a lot of points as quickly as they can, increasing the likelihood of more possessions and opportunities at points.

A lot was made in the offseason about Derek Dooley’s hiring as offensive coordinator and the integration of “pro-style” (my least favorite football term – up there with “RPO”) concepts to get Lock draft-ready. If you squint hard enough you can see his influence. Where they previously ran basic inside zone concepts under Josh Heupel, you’ll now see pulling lineman more than you ever used to.

Here is a “dart” concept with a tackle pull that you’d never see from Mizzou before Dooley. Lock keeps this but has the option to hand it off:

I also noticed some heavier sets and pistol alignments when I watched the Wyoming and Purdue games.

But make no mistake, this offense is built to throw, and so far they haven’t been stopped.

Mizzou has a big line — one that can nearly rival our own in size — and they’ve had a stellar start to the year in pass protection. They rank 7th in the country in sack rate at a little less than 1%, and they haven’t allowed any sacks on passing downs.

Lock has used that protection to his advantage and been careful with the ball. He’s notched a 69% completion rate and only thrown one pick. Whenever they’ve thrown the ball they’ve managed to gain the necessary yardage. He’s performing 11% above the expectation in passing marginal efficiency (remember: this is the difference between the offense’s success rate when they’ve chosen to pass and how they were expected to perform based on down, distance, and yard line).

Being able to get the necessary yardage virtually every time you throw the ball — even when the opponent knows you are throwing it — is a borderline superpower.

One thing that struck me was how the vast majority of their explosive plays come in passing situations when they are behind the sticks. On standard downs they rank 111th in marginal explosiveness, but on passing downs they rank 18th — further reinforcing that when they need to pass they are still able to.

They’ve also managed down and distance well. They are getting the necessary yardage on standard downs 55% of the time, and average only 5.7 yards per third down. With that short-to-medium yardage advantage, when they get in third down situations they’ve converted 60% of the time. It’s helpful when Emanuel Hall is burning people:

So far the advanced stat profiles don’t shine in the Dawgs favor here. They’re doing a helluva job defending the big play, but largely at the expense of everything else.

They rank 90th in standard down success rate allowed, 105th in completion rate allowed (64.7%), 129th in average third down distance (5.3 yards – eeesh), and 127th in sack rate. All of those require opponent consideration, but not a good look thus far.

Blind spots?

Missouri hasn’t been effective yet with scoring opportunities.

Their offense requires space, and so far when space has been removed they’ve been at a disadvantage. Here are their success rates within the ten yard increments past the 40:

  • 21- to 30-yard-line success rate: 39.3% (83rd in the country)
  • 11- to 20-yard line success rate: 42.3% (59th in the country)
  • Inside 10 success rate: 61.5% (32nd in the country)
  • First and goal success rate: 40% (95th in the country)

You can start to see the defensive strategy forming.

Missouri has superior efficiency throwing the ball, and even has a serviceable running attack this season, but they’ve had trouble with the goal-line in sight. The Dawgs are struggling in a number of areas defensively and only time will tell if this unit is good enough to beat the nation’s elite. But in this game, they are good enough to make Missouri play a patient brand of offense that the Tigers aren’t built to play. The defense can bend all day and take advantage when the field gets tight.

Field goals don’t win this game for Missouri.

As a corollary to this point, I saw what Kirby had to say about Lock earlier in the week:

“He can get the ball out so quick, and he does such a good job of keying your defenders and knowing where to go with the ball. You can tell they really work hard on it, and I think he’s just more mature. I think anytime you play in this conference and you go to the venues he’s gone to, to have three years under your belt or being in your third year, it makes it a lot more comforting. He throws the ball with purpose.”

It may be that Drew Lock is more mature than in past years. But we haven’t seen him play from behind just yet. I have a hypothesis that if the Dawgs take away big plays from Lock entirely and force Missouri to take 10+ plays per drive to score, that he will get impatient and begin taking risks.

S&Ps Prediction and Game Grade

S&P+ gets reflected as a number – that number an adjusted scoring margin. It’s an expected point total against an average team on this year’s scoring curve in the FBS.

Georgia clocks in at 3rd in the country with an S&P+ score of 30.2. Missouri ranks 29th with an S&P+ score of 12.2. When pitting these two teams together, S&P+ expects 18 points of separation between them with Georgia winning.

I mention in the About page on this site that I have three central goals for the program:

  • win the games you’re supposed to win
  • compete like hell in games where you’re outflanked
  • represent the University with honor and integrity

This week the Dawgs offense is too powerful to expect anything but a victory. S&P+ expects an 18 point victory and I’m rolling with it – this one goes squarely in the “supposed to win” category.

Glory, glory!

 

Keep Choppin’: The Dawgs in 2018

My immediate thoughts as the confetti fell last season and the Dawgs headed home from Mercedes Benz as national runners-up:

“That’s about right for this team.”

Screen Shot 2018-08-24 at 8.09.50 AM
Todd Kirkland/GettyImages

Last year was a steady march of inflection points in the development of a football program that could have easily all gone wrong. We could have walked out of last season with a 7–5 record, a Gator Bowl invite, a tenth-or-worse recruiting class, a[n actual] QB controversy, and a divided locker room.

Even a three-loss season last year would probably have sent most of our fanbase clamoring and scared away a number of the prized recruits CKS managed to land. You’ll remember everyone from Nolan Smith to Jamaree Salyer to Justin Fields waxing “we’ll see how they do this year” around this time last season. There’s a world out there in which CKS has very little time to put together a winning program.

Instead…things are alright.

Last year’s trip to The Dance bought Kirby a lot more time, earned him and the staff a lot more money, and resulted in some laughably overdue upgrades to facilities and gameday experience.

In last year’s post I wrote:

I’m pretty pragmatic when it comes to ‘ball. I’m willing to give CKS the same 16 years that CMR had to build a winning football program, because sometimes it takes that long.
It’s comical now that I felt responsibility for injecting pragmatism into DawgNation. Kirby earned your confidence all on his own.

And yet somehow, in every “mailbag” post I read across the Twitterverse folks are still fixated on a “schedule.”

How many wins is acceptable this year? What would be considered an abject failure? Based on the timeline that other teams took to win a championship, are the Dawgs “on schedule?” You can feel the entire state bracing for a let-down and the beginning of fall practice hasn’t even started yet.

I guess that’s still understandable. When you’ve had to live through the bad so much, the easiest defense is to prepare for it in advance.

Isn’t it about time for a reframe?

You did just enjoy one helluva dream season. Luck and providence shone on you all the way to the bitter end. Even if you did endure a moment of despair after the final play, it didn’t take long for everyone to think - ”Well, even if that was tragic, I’ve never been quite so proud to be a Dawg.” And not in the (forgive me) pathetic “we just lost to Georgia Tech at home and they’re defiling the hedges but our school is still better” way. Instead, just proud you were along for the ride.

That on it’s own is something new.

In that spirit, maybe we take another approach to the beginning of the year as well?

My dream for this team has always been:

  • win the games you’re supposed to win
  • compete like hell in games where you’re outflanked
  • represent the University with honor and integrity

I like the way that Kirby puts it - potential vs. execution. Measuring one program against another is the perfect way to get a coach fired. It’s the reason why Gus Malzahn is the second-longest tenured head coach in the SEC - and he’s only been at Auburn since 2013.

But if you know you have the beginnings of a strong team, you dream up the very best version of that team and coach to that standard. You expect a level of success consistent with the team’s potential and grade the year based on that.

Last year’s team looked like a three-loss team to me. There was youth and inexperience on the line, a depleted secondary, and a specials unit that was mostly an unknown. Each of those deficiencies was worth a loss or two all on their own, and with the exception of specials (where I was oh-so-stoked to be wrong) the season unfolded according to where the Dawgs were weakest. Auburn and Alabama both loaded up against the run, forced the Dawgs to fail on first and second down, and made plays over the top of the secondary in their respective wins.

Making the Playoff alone was a massive achievement. But that they ultimately lost in the title game to a team with just the right means of exploiting them, just a bit (ok, plenty) more composure and experience in title fights, and just a bit (ok, a metric ton) more luck going their way was what I would categorize as about right for the 2017 Dawgs. They played the best version of Georgia football we could have expected (and have seen in some time), and lost in the final game of the year.

If we now apply the ole potential vs. execution formula to our Dawg-fandom it doesn’t do much to temper expectations for this year’s team - this may be the most exciting Dawgs team to watch yet - but at least it puts the program’s success in the context of where we’ve been. And it prevents you from needing to schedule your discontent.

There are surely weaknesses on this team that can’t be ignored, just like there were last year. But it’s no mistake that this year’s team is favored in every game they’ll play - by more than two scores in all but two of them.

So let’s use that as our standard. A one-score game could go the way of luck and so it’s reasonable to expect a couple losses here. Maybe more than reasonable considering question marks on the defensive front, second-level, and on specials.

But hell, let’s be hopeful too. We’re close to Saturday’s in the fall dammit - Saturday’s in Athens between the hedges.

Brook Whitmire is two weeks away from introducing your “SEC Champion, Rose Bowl Champion” Georgia Bulldogs as they run out of their new tunnel and onto the field. Kirby has earned your trust and your patience. This is a badass program that has already had a measurable impact on the community. Vanity though it might be I don’t think this is insignificant:

Screen Shot 2018-08-24 at 12.21.00 AM
The point is clear - Dawgs football is fun now, we care a lot about it, and this season has the makings of something special. It’s time to stop bracing for failure, and let Kirby take the wheel.

Glory, glory!

On Offense

What a change for Coach Chaney this season, showing up to SEC Media Days a much trimmer, more joyful version of himself. A stark change from the year before when he had to answer for this:

There was some post-Brian Schottenheimer PTSD that prompted DawgNation’s wrath upon CJC after the 2016 season, but honestly I think it was more about buyer’s remorse again. For all the hell DawgNation wished upon Coach Bobo, those were some damn productive offenses. We laughed our way to the Playoff last season, but coming into 2017 there was a prevalent feeling that Chaney might not be the right fit at offensive coordinator. And what a shame that would have been if we managed to land the most talented head coach of his generation in Kirby, Jacob Eason, and a small window to capitalize on it, but no coordinator to pull the best out of him.

Always this sense of urgency in college football - it’s impossible to escape it unless you win.

CJC is still catching some hell for the last 12 minutes of the 4th quarter in the title game, but I think that’s misplaced. By almost any measure, last year’s offense under Chaney was a coup. The Dawgs ranked 22nd in overall success rate on offense - a measure of how often you gain the necessary yardage each play - compared to 82nd the year prior. They were also one of the most explosive offenses in the country, ranking 11th in IsoPPP (on plays you were successful, how successful you were), a year after ranking 96th.

And when the Dawgs got opportunities, they capitalized. A year removed from finishing 120th in points per trip inside the 40, the Dawgs finished 6th.

Damn.

And it’s not like the cupboard was completely full either.

This time last year freshman Andrew Thomas was an unknown at right tackle. There were question marks at both guard positions. D’Andre Swift was tearing it up in summer workouts, but was mostly an unknown. Javon Wims had a great spring game, but was hardly an established threat on the outside. Mecole Hardman was a known entity in terms of his speed, but definitely not for capability on offense. And Jake Fromm had never taken a college snap.

I’ll grant you that credit is certainly due to the players. When you have Sony Michel doing crap like this on 3rd and long, you’ll take it every time. My fourth favorite run of the year:

My third favorite run of the year:

You could also credit a shocking lack of major injuries, with the notable exception of Eason. But Coach schemed around a lot of deficiencies last season, and the Dawgs went to the Natty in large part because of him. The SEC Championship game alone is a massive credit to his flexibility as a play-caller. A few weeks removed from appearing stubborn at Jordan Hare - running headlong over and over into the teeth of Kevin Steele’s loaded defensive front - CJC attacked the edges in Atlanta and had Auburn on the ropes the entire night.

The same could be said for the National Title.

I bet if you asked Coach, he’ll tell you that he stopped hunting for about five plays in the fourth quarter against Alabama. But I have empathy for him. It’s a hard game to call when you’re charged with bleeding clock against a defensive front that’s rotating in 8 guys. The line stopped getting push, Sony was laid up, and despite their skill down the field, last year’s crop of receivers was never elite at getting separation off the snap. Even if the play-calling appeared conservative, he didn’t have a ton of options. Again, that was about right for the 2017 Dawgs…and that was all she wrote.

This year the cupboard is decidedly full.

If I were looking to build an offensive roster to attack SEC defenses I would construct it like this team. It’s a copycat league, and for the most part, teams are taking the Nick Saban, Rip/Liz scheme and running with it. Look anywhere you want - South Carolina, Auburn, the Dawgs, even Clemson in the ACC- they all use it as a means of defending spread zone running attacks.

The idea is pretty simple:

The defense identifies the side of strength for the offensive alignment, and rotates a safety down into the box just ahead of the snap. The front 7 all have gap responsibilities and the extra body puts the numbers advantage in favor of the defense. It isn’t foolproof though and, if the offense has the matchups, it can be exploited.

This season the Dawgs have the matchups.

Favorable Matchups

The first weakness is at the boundaries. If a Rip/Liz defense doesn’t have physical corners of good size that can lock down boundary receivers, the offense can capitalize. And while you weren’t paying attention the Dawgs have been assembling an absolute bomb squad:

  • RSFr. Matt Landers - 6’5″, 200lbs
  • Sr. Jayson Stanley - 6’2″, 207lbs
  • Fr. Tommy Bush - 6’5″, 195lbs
  • So. Jeremiah Holloman - 6’2″, 200lbs
  • So. Trey Blount - 6’2″, 200lbs
  • Jr. Riley Ridley - 6’2″, 200lbs

Physical receivers of good size that can win on the outside are vital to CJC’s offensive attack - more on that later. Defenses can feel free to load the box if they want, but their corners will be exposed without help. Especially if you have a heady, accurate quarterback:

Rip/Liz schemes are also vulnerable to speed in the slot and the Dawgs have it in spades:

  • Mecole Hardman - 5’11″(lol, doubt it but it’s what the site says), 183lbs
  • Demetris Robertson - 6’0″, 190lbs
  • Kearis Jackson - 6’0″, 200lbs
  • Ahkil Crumpton - 5’9″, 175lbs
  • Tyler Simmonswasonside - 6’0″, 201lbs
  • Terry Godwin - 5’11”, 185lbs

Godwin, Robertson, and Simmonswasonside are ‘tweeners that will probably get reps both in and out of the slot, but the rest are largely slot specialists with speed to spare. The old cliche about “taking the top off the defense” isn’t that far off. Having targets that can reliably get off the line of scrimmage and cause the single high safety conflict is one of the quickest ways to make a defense commit to smaller personnel.

Alabama brings a safety to pressure the QB here. They’re already in a smaller package and still can’t keep up with Mecole. This is really Cover-1 but you can see what speed out of slot can do to a safety responsible for the entire field:

Smaller defensive personnel is the ultimate goal for any offensive coordinator looking to establish a power running game.

It also helps if there’s a ton of beef up front, and the Dawgs have plenty of it.

Everyone that starts on the offensive line this season will weigh more than 300 pounds. And a couple of them are far north of that number.

Andrew Thomas (320lbs) is probably the Dawgs most vital player at any position. He’ll slide over to left tackle after an amazing freshman campaign that earned him an All-SEC first team selection this year. Center Lamont Gaillard (308lbs) received All-SEC second-team honors and has a shot at making some good NFL money this season. It’s likely that the season starts with Kendall Baker (listed 305lbs) and Ben Cleveland (listed 335lbs) as the guards and Isaiah Wilson (listed 340lbs) at right tackle, though there’s debate that the first two will have competition.

The Dawgs run-blocking scheme relies on road-graders up front. If the five guys I mentioned above aren’t the ones, there’s a treasure trove of young, big talent behind them.

A note: it isn’t very common to see a “rotation” on the offensive line, mostly because it isn’t very common that you’d have more than five very talented guys at a time. But blocking for inside zone is pretty straight up and down - Sam Pittman doesn’t build much exotic pulling into the rushing attack. With that being the case I’ve wondered if we might see snaps for other guys like Justin Schaffer, Trey Hill, Jamaree Salyer, Cade Mays, Netori Johnson, among others (all north of 300lbs) to spell the first five. Could come in handy against teams with lots of depth in their defensive front.

With the amount of girth up front, it may not matter whether the Dawgs get established first through the air. I’ve long dreamed of a Dawgs offense that could always get 1 yard if it needed it. This year that might finally be the case.

The Dawgs’ staff has done a fantastic job of recruiting players who offer optionality and force matchup problems on a defense. Just this week linebacker Monty Rice had this to say about freshman running back James Cook:

I’ve never played against a running back like Cook before, he has his own little style, and it’s very unique. He’s very tough to cover … you can’t be looking at the quarterback when you cover him, or you’ll watch them complete the pass.

The same could be said about stud running back D’Andre Swift, and there are other skill position players that provide intriguing matchups as well. Freshman Kearis Jackson is primarily considered a slot receiver and has the speed and suddenness to support the notion. But he also weighs in at a stalky 200lbs, offering a big target in the middle of the field. Tight ends Charlie Woerner, Isaac Nauta, and Luke Ford all have the size to be enforcers on the inside, but the athleticism to split out as well. Elijah Holyfield runs with speed and power - a different animal than what defenses will see with Swift and Cook.

This offense has the ability to shapeshift if it needs to against elite competition. That alone should have you excited.

A Note on the Tight Ends

The preoccupation with the tight ends is almost as baffling to me as enforcing a schedule for winning a title on Kirby Smart. Every place I turn someone is asking when the tight ends are going to get involved in the offense. Folks, what you saw last year was one of the top-15 passing attacks in the nation. But so long as you want to belabor the point, a few notes on our offense.

This is inside zone. About 90% of college offenses incorporate some version of it as their base offense. It’s not pretty below, but like Coach Boone says - ”It’s like Novocain, just give it time…always works.”

The Dawgs have a number of inside running concepts, but a lot of Chaney’s play-action and RPO designs come from this look.Inside zone is Jim Chaney’s true north. It’s where we’ll start each game and where we’ll try to get back to if a defense is denying it from us. This is a power running football team and that identity comes directly from CKS. It’s been that way in some form or fashion for as long as I’ve been watching Georgia football, but especially so now.

If SEC football is chess, the defense makes the first move. In the event that we’re playing Alabama, Auburn, South Carolina, or any of the other Rip/Liz teams, typically you’ll see opposing defenses try to take inside zone away from us by rotating a safety down into “the box” and beating it with numbers. If they have one more than you can block, math says they win.

From the point they commit the extra player, Coach Chaney’s charge is to get that extra man out of the box so that he can get back to running inside zone. There are a number of ways to do that, but typically you would do it by targeting defenders that are in conflict by the alignment.

First off, you have the corners out on islands matched up against receivers. Javon Wims had an enormous year last season feasting entirely on single coverage matchups afforded him by defenses loading the box to stop inside zone. This season you can expect Riley Ridley, Demetris Robertson, Matt Landers, Terry Godwin, and others to be factors for the same reason. They all have either the size, athleticism, or both to win in one-on-one matchups.

You’ll also typically have a defensive back or linebacker who is truly in conflict, with both a gap responsibility in the run game and matchup responsibility in the pass game. This is your “chicken” for the RPO plays that have become the fashion in recent years. He is vulnerable in the space behind the second level of defenders. In the example below, everyone in the second level and the high safety bit on the run action.

Finally, you’ll have a single high safety who’s job is to make sure no one gets behind him. Speedy slot receivers that can test the seam or beat him to the boundary are a massive advantage in the offense’s favor. 52.5 yards is a lot of ground to have to cover by yourself when the Dawgs have speed challenging you from both sides of the formation.

That free safety getting beat will signal to a defensive coordinator that it’s time to start rethinking strategy and personnel. The defense will need to get “smaller” by bringing in faster personnel and “expand” to cover the amount of space the offense is dictating.
Often you can stop right there. When the defensive coordinator has brought in an extra defensive back or rotated the second safety back out of the box, the Dawgs can go right back to inside zone. And that is the dance.

Whether the tight ends become a receiving threat this season is more to do with matchups than anything else. Certainly with the amount of speed and play-making that the Dawgs have on the outside, defenses are going to have to decide who they take away. And I doubt that decision will be the tight ends. There will be moments where Coach Chaney will be able to use the tight ends to beat in-the-box defenders who are committing too willingly to the running game. So those of you clamoring for more tight end involvement may well get your wish.

But it’s important to note that isn’t the point. Offense isn’t about making sure everyone touches the ball. It’s about placing defenders in conflict and taking advantage of them. Whatever player benefits from the defender’s conflict gets the ball. As the ole cliche goes, you gotta take what they give you.

Justin Fields

If you remember back to last year’s post, I wrote:

Standby for the hottest of hot takes: I’m not sold that Jacob Eason is “the guy” yet. I’m not trying to get a rise out of anyone with that or advocating for giving Jake Fromm snaps. I actually think Eason checks most of the boxes of the kind of talent you want managing an offense. The only thing that makes me have pause about him is the strength of his arm. He has a freaking cannon and relied on that more than he should’ve last season, at the expense of his mechanics and better judgement.

Welp folks, I am indeed convinced that Jake Fromm is “the guy.” You need look no further than the play in the Rose Bowl to see why.

Rose Bowl, Down 7, a minute left in the 4th , 2&10 from the 23, and he threw it away when nothing was there. Savage.

Even if he makes some mistakes this season, those should be viewed as necessary learnings for a quarterback on his way to becoming elite, not as opportunities for the next guy. It may not be this season, but Jake Fromm will captain Georgia back to the Playoff. So sit tight and don’t start barking for Fields at the first available moment.

You’ve already got your guy.

Fields will play though and I’ve been thinking a lot about how. Scripted series and redzone offense seem to be common takes across Dawg forums, but I could also see him participate on third-and-short, third-and-long, and in two-minute offense before the half.

Coach Chaney expressed some reservations with using Fields as a primarily run-first quarterback. That’s fair, owing to those two being the only scholarship quarterbacks on the roster - you don’t want to hurt the guy if you can avoid it. But as CKS is fond of saying, for some of these guys you don’t get to keep them longer than three years anyway. There’s no sense waiting for tomorrow for someone like Fields, you gotta use him while you got him.

I have a few ideas about how.

The Fields Install

Clemson QBs Deshaun Watson and Kelly Bryant are pretty comparable players to Fields physically. Clemson’s offense is built to allow an athletic quarterback to play in space and make quick decisions based on reads at the line. A few base looks give the defense a lot to deal with.

Q Counter to establish the quarterback as a run threat:

Ole reliable, inside zone:

Pull the handoff when they overcommit to inside zone:

Incorporate a screen element on the edge so that they maintain their spacing:

A speed sweep for the same reason as the above:

From there a basic inside zone RPO and/or a downfield play-action element once you’ve both established the run and forced the defense to commit to it:

Inside zone play-action. Ends poorly because Malik Hooker was a bad man.

That set of options would be a lot to handle inside the 30 yard line with Fields under center.

A Dream for the Offense

In the 2017 National Championship Clemson found themselves stymied in the fourth quarter whenever they tried to get back to their version of inside zone. It just wasn’t there. And quarterback Deshaun Watson was getting pressured heavily by Alabama’s front 7. Co-offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott opted to switch to a spread, tempo passing game out of five wide receiver sets. They got the ball out of Watson’s hands quickly so that pass rush wasn’t a problem and started moving the ball. Once Alabama re-committed to stopping the pass, the run game opened back up for Clemson and they sealed it.

What I just described is what I wish the Dawgs had in their back pocket in the fourth quarter of the title game last season. There were no running lanes and there was no time for long-developing pass plays.

As an aside for the nerdz: Josh McDaniels has done something interesting with this concept for the Pats over the last three years. He’ll establish his normal 21 personnel, with a fullback, first. Then later in the game, he’ll run the same personnel out but have them break the huddle into a five-wide set. The defense is typically in their base personnel, and it’s almost comical to watch the linebackers look over like, “What do I even do?”

The Dawgs have the kind of personnel to pull this off. Show the I-formation, toss/crack package that Chaney is fond of early on, and then break the huddle into five-wide later with the same personnel when you need tempo passing.

Players to Watch

I have three: Elijah Holyfield, Tyler Simmonswasonside, and Jayson Stanley.

It wasn’t much more than a year ago that folks were calling for Holyfield to potentially transfer after being buried on the depth chart. About two hours ago, while I was writing about the Dawgs offense, Zamir White’s freshman season ended with a non-contact injury. All of a sudden Holyfield’s role on the offense is all the more clear. He’ll probably absorb many of the carries that Zamir would’ve received this year, and he’s got the skill to do something with them.

With the size of the mammoths that are blocking, and the speed and matchups on the outside, there will be running lanes available for aggressive backs, and aggressive is Holyfield’s style. I also just appreciate that he worked hard and waited his turn. He’s due for a huge year and deserves it.

My second favorite run of the year:

And Good Lord, it ain’t a Dawgs preview without a breakout year prediction for both Stanley and Simmonswasonside. Every year I write about these two guys for the same reasons, they dominate on special teams and flash in the spring game. This year feels like it might be their time though. I’ve counted five times that Kirby has singled them out as players that are excelling in fall camp, despite deep competition in the receivers room. Often you see that happen so that five star guys don’t get lazy, but it doesn’t feel like that this time.

A Modest Prediction

It’s a rare year that the Dawgs are carried by their offense - and that’s certainly not the way Kirby would prefer it - but that is my prediction for this season. Defensively there are holes. The Dawgs may need to outscore elite offenses in order to win, but they have the matchups and the scheme to do it.

It’s been a long time since the Dawgs had the same Opening Day starter at quarterback two years in a row. Technically, Fromm didn’t start last season, but close enough. The training wheels are off now and his surrounding cast is close to matchup-proof.

Time to dominate on O.

Defense

Everything I’ve written so far on Rip/Liz strategy applies to the Dawgs defensively as well. The success of our defense hinges on it’s ability to stop the run. Despite their experience and talent, last season’s defense was average in that regard.

When opponents decided to run the ball, the Dawgs rarely stopped them at or behind the line (96th in stuff rate) and were in the middle of the pack in terms of giving up the necessary yardage (27th in rushing success rate.) Not bad necessarily, but it’ll get you beat in games where possessions are roughly equal between teams.

It helps when you have an elite player capable of making timely plays.

Short of Ed Reed and Sean Taylor, I think Roquan Smith is my favorite defensive college football player I’ve ever watched. He is the reason the majority of the Dawgs havoc plays came from the linebacking corps in 2017. And he’s responsible for one of my favorite Dawgs moments:

Roquan is gone though, and his absence begs a bigger question - if the Dawgs were average at stopping the run last season with him involved, how do they stand to do it without him?

In an ideal world your front 6 or 7 would be able to stop the run all on their own - part of the reason why Miami DC Manny Diaz thinks the defensive line is the most important unit on any team. But DC Mel Tucker and Kirby Smart want to be able to commit an extra safety against the run as long as they can/have to.

This places a lot of trust in the corners’ ability to play lock down coverage on the outside. Last season senior Deandre Baker was otherworldly. I think it was lost on folks that he had a turnover in every postseason game, recording a pick in the SEC title, the Rose Bowl, and the National title - it was just that two of those were called back.

The trouble was on the other side. Tucker and Smart relied heavily on undersized (though experienced) senior Malkom Parrish, and Parrish was often overmatched. It can’t be laid entirely on Parrish, but the Dawgs gave up big plays in passing situations - they were 81st in the country passing down explosiveness. Ultimately, when elite teams needed to throw against the defense, they were able to, and they gained big yardage in the process.

This season the Dawgs are trading experience for talent and a physical profile more fitting with what Tucker and Smart are after in the secondary. Much like the bomb squad he’s built on offense, Kirby has recruited size and speed on the outside:

  • Fr. Tyson Campbell - 6’2″, 185lbs
  • So. Ameer Speed - 6’3″, 211lbs
  • So. Mark Webb - 6’1″, 200lbs
  • So. Eric Stokes - 6’1″, 185lbs
  • Fr. Chris Smith - 5’11”, 180lbs
  • So. William Poole - 6’0″, 190lbs

Speed and length are common denominators amongst all of these guys. Who will anchor the boundary opposite Baker is up for debate, but there is talent on the DB roster that’s been absent the last two years.

The free safety position responsible for the middle third of the field will be held by sophomore Richard Lecounte. Lecounte has the athletic ability to be among the top safeties in the history of Georgia football. It’s clear that Kirby thinks highly of him - he’s been vocal in the media calling for Richard to step up into a role of leadership this season. If you’re getting yelled at publicly, you’re on the verge of making Kirby’s inner circle.

Depth in the front seven is the largest issue.

Up front I expect the line to be anchored by Julian Rochester, Tyler Clark, and Jonathan Ledbetter. The latter two garnered third and fourth-team All-SEC selections, respectively, but what Rochester brings to the table is an unknown. The void left by Big John Atkins really isn’t something this year’s Dawgs have much of an answer for. Underclassmen Devonte Wyatt and Jordan Davis offer the kind of size Atkins had, but not the experience or skill. Daquan Hawkins-Muckle will live in our memories forever for his timely blocked field goal in the SEC Championship, be he too is an unknown on the inside.

Grad-transfer Jay Hayes has also garnered praise in camp for his motor and want-to, but I have a hard time thinking the Dawgs will find themselves improving on last year’s numbers in run defense. Even with the experience of junior safety JR Reed rotating down to help in run defense, I don’t see it.

Matchup-Proof Defense

You don’t have to look too far back into your memory to find what a modern defense needs to be built like in order to dominate. 2017 Alabama was about as matchup-proof as it comes. Defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne commanded (and beat) regular double teams, eating centers alive all year. Linebacker Rashaan Evans was equal parts enforcer and athlete, capable of fitting to stop the run, contributing pass-rush, and covering any athletic profile. And Minkah Fitzpatrick was even several steps above Evans.

Modern defense requires these aces. With the advent of a mobile quarterback operating out of scheme that dictates favorable matchups using space, the game has turned from being predominantly played 10-on-11 (cancelling out immobile QBs) to being played 11-on-10 (the 11th defender being cancelled by conflict.) So long as offenses continue to space the field with speedy athletes, there just have to be monsters on D who can handle it all.

The Dawgs are building the kind of defense that will one day be able to cancel out the advantages competent offenses have on them now. Freshman corner Tyson Campbell and resurgent sophomore utility-DB Deangelo Gibbs have the athletic profile needed in the third level. Freshmen Quay Walker and Channing Tindall have the size and speed to be shapeshifting linebackers. Freshmen pass-rushers Brenton Cox and Adam Anderson have the build to command attention up front and on the edge. And it bears mentioning there’s another crop of talented interior defenders headed to Athens in the class of 2019.

But overall, the Dawgs find themselves vulnerable up the middle. It will take a massive jump for Rochester or one of the freshmen DTs to convince me otherwise. For now though, they’ll rely on Ledbetter, Clark, and a committee of linebackers to defend the run. I’ll believe it when I see it.

Players to Watch

Mark Webb, Eric Stokes, Tyson Campbell.

In an ideal world, the pass rush gets home and your secondary benefits from the lack of time a quarterback has to make decisions. Whether the Dawgs can rush the passer with three or four is as-of-yet up for debate. That in mind, Deandre Baker, Richard Lecounte, and whomever wins the second corner spot can expect to get tested - especially so, if Smart and Tucker need to commit extra resources to stopping the run. All three of Webb, Stokes, and Campbell will get their shot to lock down the job.

Tyler Clark

Honestly I just love the guy and want to wish some good juju his way. Undervalued out of high school, fought his way into the rotation as a freshman, ended last season as arguably the best defensive lineman on the team. This is his year.

D’Andre Walker

You know, I owe 15 a big time apology. I think he’d admit that as a younger Dawg he was way too undisciplined a player on Saturdays. Truly, with the exception of Isaiah McKenzie, I don’t think I’ve seen so many unnecessary personal foul/unsportsman-like penalties from anyone in my time watching college football. But a switch went on for him last year. He was a fantastic pass-rush specialist, but I think it’s lost on people that he was easily best at setting the edge on defense last year.

Time and again in important games - Florida, Auburn, Oklahoma, the Natty - Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy got caught cheating inside only to have backs beat them to the edge for big gains. It was easily the most frustrating part of watching the Dawgs defense last season for me. Not with D’Andre though. He was consistent all season in playing his assignments. He dominated Georgia Tech.

Time for him to go make some $$$.

Specials

The Dawgs were elite in every way on special teams last year. I’m not even going to spend any more time on it. Rod is magician, freshman Jake Camarda can boom it. They have fast guys that can cover it. They will dominate again.

A quick note on the importance field position plays on a team’s chances to win. This is an excerpt from Bill Connelly’s book Study Hall:

A team’s average starting field position was worse than 24.0 (i.e. the team’s 24-yard line) in just 14.1 percent of the 2012 FBS vs. FBS games. It was better than 36.0 just 15.7 percent of the time. In most games, teams were trying to average in the 32–36 range (win percentage in this range: 66 percent) instead of the 24–28 range (win percentage: 32 percent).

These aren’t huge numbers. On average, a team got 13 possessions in a given game; the total difference between an average start of 26.0 and an average start of 34.0 is just 104 yards (13 possessions times 8.0 yards). One turnover could mean a difference of about 40 yards. One field-flipping punt that bounces past the punt returner and rolls a while could mean 25 yards. One huge stop on a kick return could mean 15 yards. A sack on third-and-long, instead of a short completion, could mean 15 yards. A third-down conversion that simply extends a drive from three-and-out to six-and-out could mean 10 yards. And just like that, you’re at 105 yards, and you’ve gone from likely loss to likely win.

That is a bit of an extreme example with a significant special teams impact, but one can see how smaller plays, particularly third downs, can add up quickly. And almost nothing is more devastating to your field position cause than a three-and-out, especially if a drive involves a sack or negative play on third down. Never mind the impact such a series might have on momentum; that’s significant enough. It can have an even larger impact in the field position battle.

In other words, the value of field position in the outcome of a game is non-trivial and:

If you ever wondered why Sony Michel, or Mecole Hardman, or Lorenzo Carter, or Zamir White were getting meaningful snaps on special teams, ‘das it.

It’s unfortunate that Zamir got hurt, but from what I understand he wasn’t running with the 1s, and getting a guy playing at game speed after he’s been fully cleared from a previous injury is hardly a crime. Especially not on specials.

The Schedule

According to S&P+ data, the Dawgs are favored by more than 15 in all but four games. The four:

South Carolina

I went to a Terry alumni event in Atlanta a few weeks ago where Tony Barnhart and Aaron Murray held a panel on the outlook for the Dawgs and the SEC this season. Tony and Aaron both were on board with Carolina being an early trip-up owing to recent history at Williams-Brice and the Dawgs breaking in new starters on defense.

Nah.

At the very least Carolina’s defensive front will be overmatched by the Dawgs starting five linemen. Even if they have their best day, there’s too much talent on the Dawgs roster for the Cocks to compete for four quarters. This will be a higher scoring game than it has been recently, but the Dawgs will dictate on the ground.

My confidence meter is at a 9 for this game.

Sorry ‘Champ.

LSU

Ed O picked a terrible time to have a really difficult schedule.

Screen Shot 2018-08-21 at 8.38.55 PM

By the time the Dawgs show up in Death Valley it’s realistic that this team is limping at 2–4 with all of Baton Rouge castigating Orgeron and Ohio State-transfer Joe Burrow. That place doesn’t take too kindly to losing. To their credit though, the Tigers have All-SEC talent at all three levels on defense and haven’t recruited as poorly as you’d think over the last few years.

Regardless, that’s a top-heavy schedule and it doesn’t get any easier after the Dawgs show up. If I stare at it long enough I start to see a slugfest with a top-20 LSU defense trading blows with a top-8 UGA offense. But until LSU figures out a running game, I’ll remain more confident than not.

Confidence meter: 8.

Florida

Of the in-conference games to be concerned about, this one tops my list.

Florida was garbage in virtually every offensive category, but managed to find ways to run the ball in spots last season. Lamical Perine, Malik Davis, and Jordan Scarlett can play. Mullen’s scheme should eliminate the decision-making that Franks struggled with last season, assuming it’s Franks who gets the nod at Q. Even beyond Auburn, this strikes me as the team that could expose the Dawgs lack of run defense in the middle.

It bears mentioning that there’s some angst in Florida now in the same way there was around these parts in 2016 when we limped past Nicholls State. The recruiting arrow is pointing definitively downwards and the team ain’t exactly composed of the most well-adjusted gents in the world. If the Dawgs take care of this one in sound fashion, I could see us going on a run against the Gators.

Confidence meter is at a 7.

Auburn

I really love Gus Malzahn. Shameful I know, but his offense is my favorite to watch. This year especially will be intriguing. He’s had eight offenses in his time as coordinator and head coach at Auburn, and all of them had a running back capable of handling a heavy load of carries inside. With Kerryon Johnson and Kam Pettway gone, that responsibility appears to land on junior Kam Martin. Auburn’s team site has him listed at 5’10”, 193lbs, but that seems generous looking at the guy.

It can’t be understated that everything that Gus calls is rooted in the running game. His offensive install days are even built around “anchor” running plays that all the subsequent plays “look” alike. Their offense virtually mirrors the Dawgs approach - a downhill running game built to setup occasional downfield shots - they just make it look a little prettier.

Again, if you stare it long enough you find an O-line that was porous in pass protection last season and an undersized back that doesn’t seem to fit the scheme - this might be the year that Gus struggles to find answers.

It bears mentioning also that the Tigers front-7 is one of the two most fearsome units in the league this season (MSU being the other). Even though the game is at Sanford, we’ll have trouble establishing the run against them.

Confidence meter: 7.

Composure and Physicality

The best college football teams I’ve ever seen are animals against the run. Whenever I “assess” teams that have championship expectations in preseason, I look at defensive line first. Who’s got it a championship d-line this year? Clemson. Auburn. Mississippi State. Maybe Washington. Ohio State. Michigan. Alabama. Penn State. Maaaaaybe Wisconsin.

That’s it by my count. At that point I go back through that list and look for teams that have either 1) a great quarterback or 2) a quarterback that doesn’t make dumbass decisions. Who’s got it this year? Auburn. Penn State. Maybe Clemson. Maybe Alabama. Maaybe Washington. Maaaybe Michigan. Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaa-doubt it-aaaaaybe Wisconsin.

Aside: Worth noting how rare it is that you get both - but if you look at back at Championship winners gone by, you start to see the trend…

And at that point it becomes a fun thought exercise.

Auburn seems like a playoff contender, but they replace three people in their secondary and don’t have a proven back that can run downhill. Clemson has an elite defense and elite playmaking ability on offense but their quarterback (Kelly Bryant) isn’t a consistent threat throwing the ball. Clemson also has a true freshman QB who is highly touted but an unknown (Trevor Lawrence.) Alabama replaces all three of their matchup monsters from last year’s defense and has to replace their entire secondary. Washington’s QB (Jake Browning) made some undeniably silly decisions last season. Ohio State…

All I’m saying, folks, is that there’s a window here. So far at the start of the year we don’t know of any complete teams. With the roster the Dawgs have put together, it’s starting to look like one. It doesn’t quite look like one yet to me, but it’s damn close and I believe in Coach.

Potential vs. execution.

I think this year’s team has the potential to win at least 10 games. I would be surprised to see more than two losses in the regular season.

If this team plays with the kind of composure and physicality that last year’s did…
I’ll see you in Arlington/Miami.

As always folks, treat your fellow Dawgs and competitors - even when you undoubtedly get accosted in Columbia - with respect and integrity. Pick up after yourself, especially on campus. Let’s have a helluva year.

It’s great to be a Georgia Bulldog - keep choppin’ that wood!

My favorite run of the season: