Mailbag: The postseason officially begins

semerson@macon.comJanuary 9, 2013 

ATHENS – Aaron Murray described watching the BCS championship game on Tuesday night as being “painful.” And yes, from all appearances we can now conclude that Georgia was not only five yards from being in the national title game, but five yards from Brent Musberger hitting on Murray’s sister.

(Incidentally, I didn’t find what Musberger said to be rising to the need of an apology. It was a silly moment for the venerable announcer, but I can list hundreds of other things ESPN should apologize for before arriving at that one.)

But the utter carnage we saw on Monday night was another example of why a playoff is not only necessary, but should be instituted right away. Oregon was almost certainly the second-best team in the country, or at least the one team outside the SEC capable of giving Alabama a fight. Look at it this way: If Georgia can overcome its loss at South Carolina and almost reach the title game, and if Alabama can overcome its loss to Texas A&M, then Oregon should’ve gotten a chance to overcome its loss to Stanford.

Under the present, soon-to-be-obsolete system, Notre Dame vs. Alabama had to be the national title game. There was no other logical choice (nation’s lone unbeaten team, which beat three top 25 teams) vs. the champion from the best conference. And it still ended up being non-competitive.

Whereas …

1. Notre Dame vs. 4. Oregon 2. Alabama vs. 3. Florida

Those are the semis you get out of the soon-to-arrive system, if you go by the BCS standings. (Which will be replaced by a committee in the new system.) Based on the Sugar Bowl, the Gators didn’t really belong either, which is why I still think an eight-team playoff is the right number. Still, a four-team playoff would at least have given us Alabama-Oregon, in all probability.

And again, this is why college football shouldn’t wait, and should immediately adopt the system that’s coming anyway. It won’t happen, in all likelihood. Too many contracts, too much bureaucracy, committees, etc. Whereas last year Major League Baseball decided to add another wild card and did so right away. The NCAA tournament expands and doesn’t wait either.

College football moves at too much of a snail’s pace. But at least it’s moving.

Now that I’ve said my piece, on to the mailbag, where as always we begin with people who blow smoke up my butt:

First, I would like to say, I very much appreciate all the hard work you put in this season. You did a great job of keeping us all very much informed throughout the football season. Now to my question. Though I know I am a bit biased, as a Dawg lover and a ND hater, how on earth can your colleagues, and the coaches of America for that matter, in good conscience vote Notre Dame in the top 5 of the final polls?? You would think after the shellacking they just received at the hands of Bama they would be more in the range you voted them in, but #3 and #4 is laughable.

Keep up the good work.
- Ashley

Thanks for the kind words. Although I have to think you’d be less complimentary if I were one of the writers putting Notre Dame over Georgia.

I can’t speak for my fellow voters; we vote on our own and don’t share notes. I can cite one other voter, Hays Carolyn of the Florida Times-Union, who tweeted that he voted Notre Dame higher based on each team’s losses: “Notre Dame (12-1) got crushed by national champ. Georgia (11-2) got crushed by Outback Bowl champs. S. Carolina 35, #Dawgs 7. You can't fixate on bowl games when compiling your final ballot. Must look at the whole resume.”

I don’t think it’s wrong to feel that way. I don’t agree with it, but it’s fair to feel that way. And in the long run I don’t think it matters much between third and fourth (in the coaches poll) or fourth and fifth (in the AP poll, though tied for fifth). Either way, Georgia finished in the top 5 nationally, and years from now few will remember the exact order.

With Murray coming back, will his graduate work last him that long? I thought maybe he was already close to earning is graduate degree....
-Jim P

I asked him about this on Tuesday. Murray said he’s going to take “a little break” from his psychology track and try some broadcasting classes.

“I think my time on ESPN the other day got me kinda excited,” Murray said.

Still, you’re talking about someone who by the time he’s done playing football will have owned his bachelor’s degree for more than 18 months. It used to be unusual for players to be graduate students, but now it’s becoming the norm.

1. How do the SEC haters not realize the conference is far and away the most dominant one in the country?

2. I'm really excited about our prospects next season with most of our offense coming back, including two stud RBs and the soon-to-be record holder of all SEC passing statistics in the backfield. However, we obviously will have a lot of new faces on defense and will face two tough early season tests with Clemson and South Carolina (As Dabo put it, USC is in California and Carolina is in Chapel Hill). Having said that, how likely do you think it is it that we end up back in Atlanta and finally manage to win?
- Lucas Puente, East Palo Alto, CA

1. Are there really people out there who still feel that way? You’re out there in California, so perhaps you hear it more. But I can’t think that anyone honestly feels that way. The evidence is pretty overwhelming. The only way to “hate” on the SEC is to say the conference is great because it spends all the money, it cheats, the players don’t go to class, yada yada yada. But there’s no disputing the superiority of the football being played.

2. You nailed it, as far as the opening stretch, and you should include LSU’s visit to Athens in Week 4. (Yes, the Tigers have lost about half their team to the NFL draft, but it’s LSU.) Right now I would lean towards making Georgia the favorite in each of those three games, but can the Bulldogs sweep all three – or at least two of them, because as we’ve seen one loss is in all likelihood survivable. The rest of the schedule has potential pitfalls as well: What if Tennessee is better under Butch Jones? What if Auburn is better under Gas Malzann? Both of those games are on the road. And we haven’t even mentioned the Florida game.

On the face of it, Murray’s return makes the success of 2013 hinge on the defense, and how quickly it can mesh into a decent unit. And decent is all it needs to be if the offense lives up to expectations. As I said this week on Twitter: For all the talent leaving, it still was only an average SEC defense in 2012.

I am just thankful for a good year and a year that has made us relevant again. I thought our offense made the most improvement of all. No longer are we predictable, but we are capable of scoring on every drive. We ran different schemes that even the best defenses have trouble stopping. Our defense did good at times, but for the most part struggled to stop the run. It really was a factor against Alabama and South Carolina. My question is do you think that Grantham's 3-4 might be more focused on putting pressure on the QB and less on stopping the run? Do you think it may need some tweaking this off season to better account for the run?
- Larry W. Tucker

I wouldn’t say it’s a matter of too much focus on the pass-rush: If it were, John Jenkins, Alec Ogletree and others would have had more sacks. The run defense was pretty good in 2011, whether it was up the gut or along the edges – with the exception of against Marcus Lattimore. And lots of people had problems with him.

The main problem, as I’ve said before, is a combination of the wrong personnel on the field, and not substituting enough. I never really bought the idea of playing John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers together, and early in the season that came at the expense of Garrison Smith. Once Abry Jones got hurt, the lineup of Jenkins-Geathers-Smith became the norm, but that prevented Geathers and Jenkins from getting much rest. Last year, when the run defense was at its best, the two nose tackles were rotating. And it wasn’t a scholarship numbers issue: Ray Drew, Sterling Bailey and others were available but didn’t play much.

I’m not a defensive line coach, or a defensive coordinator, but I would have let Jenkins and Geathers rotate at nose tackle, and only occasionally flex Jenkins out to end. I would have rotated more at end between Jones (when healthy), Smith, Cornelius Washington, Drew and Bailey. The inside linebackers also figure into this, and while there was depth at that spot, there were times this year that the backups hardly played.

It will be interesting to see if this changes much in 2013, due to Chris Wilson replacing Rodney Garner as the line coach. While Garner was in charge of subbing on the line, as I said there wasn’t a lot of subbing at inside linebacker either, and Garner said publicly during the season he was going to try to sub more – then it didn’t happen. It makes you wonder if it was more a Grantham thing.

Who is the leading candidate to start alongside Herrera at the other inside linebacker position? Also, is Josh Harvey-Clemons competing for the strong safety or free safety position?
- Patrick from Tybee Island

Your two questions are intimately connected. Harvey-Clemons could end up being the other guy at inside linebacker, but he’d have to put on some weight. He has said he wants to play at safety, but he has also said he didn’t learn very much this year at safety so he’ll basically be a rookie there. I think where Harvey-Clemons ends up is the major question on defense right now, other than Kwame Geathers’ decision. (At press time, he hasn’t announced anything, and my best efforts to reach him or a family member have not been successful.)

If it’s not Harvey-Clemons at ILB, then the most likely guy could be Ramik Wilson, who has rotated between the inside and outside spots. I also wouldn’t rule out Ryne Rankin. Two other recruits – Reggie Carter (already enrolled) and Kim Kimbrough (set to sign) could be factors. But remember, Grantham also seems to prefer guys that have been around the know the system. Which means you can’t rule out Brandon Burrows either.

Other than the early suspensions, what do you think is the primary reason for the defense underachieving? What do you expect from the defense in 2013?
- Jim Bennett

You mentioned the suspensions, I mentioned the substituting a bit ago. The other factor I can add, and it’s mainly speculative, is mental: Too many guys assuming they’d just show up and be just as good as in 2011. That’s why Shawn Williams was getting at when he went on his diatribe.

The expectations for the defense should be, in my mind, to be a mid-tier SEC defense. That’s fair considering the amount of players that are leaving, but the ones still around – Jordan Jenkins, Amarlo Herrera, Damian Swann and Garrison Smith is a pretty decent core. (And if Geathers were to surprise people and return, then you’ve got a big physical nose tackle to build the defense around.) The team also has confidence in Sheldon Dawson to be a No. 2 cornerback, and guys like Harvey-Clemons, Ray Drew, Josh Dawson and Sterling Bailey could do well in bigger roles. The big question is going to be at nose tackle if Geathers leaves, and whether the team can find two safeties that won’t embarrass themselves.

What was going on with Shawn Williams and Taylor Martinez? Did something happen early in the game I missed?
- Gordon, Austin TX

Honestly, I didn’t see this – but considering the two players involved, it shouldn’t be surprising there was some sort of back-and-forth. Williams, incidentally, hasn’t spoken to the media in some time – only once since his famous diatribe. I actually asked him on the field after the game if he’d talk to us now that his career is over, and he smiled, tapped me on the arm and said, “I might.” … Then he didn’t. Now I can’t wait for Pro Day.

Murray has broken several UGA records. What are they? What other UGA records will he be chasing next year? Also, who owns the SEC records in those categories, and are they within his grasp?
- Carson

Here are the notable ones:

Records Murray has broken:
- Passing yards in a season: 3,893 this season (previous record was 3,525 by Eric Zeier in 1993.)
- Career passing touchdowns: 95 (previous record was 72 by David Greene from 2001-04).
- Pass efficiency rating in a season: 174.82 this season (previous record was Mike Bobo, 155.80 in 1997).
- Passing touchdowns in a season: 36 this season (previous record was 35, by Murray last year, and prior to that it was Matt Stafford’s 25 in 2008.)

Records left:
- Career passing yards: David Greene (11,528) has the record, Murray has 10,0091.
- Career completions: David Greene (849) has the record, Murray has 696.
- Single-season completion percentage: Mike Bobo had 65.03 in 1997. Murray came close this year, at 64.5.

And then there’s this:
- Career completion percentage: Zeier (59.77 percent) has the record, Murray is at 61.5 percent. So Murray is putting that one on the line by coming back.

Any plans to use Faton Bauta in short yardage and red zone? Like OU's Bell-dozer?
- Trey Young, via Twitter

Nothing was mentioned this year because Bauta was redshirting. And I wouldn’t consider it a strong possibility for next year, now that Murray is coming back and talking about trying to improve his running ability. But you never know, especially since Bauta is available to use.

With Murray coming back it seems like we will be an elite offensive team and we have tons of young talent on defense. Do you think we will be stout enough defensively to slow down Clemson and South Carolina early in the season? With all the younger guys likely to see time I'm worried about giving up big plays early in the season but unfortunately it won't be against a bad Buffalo team. That doesn't mean I want to see a veteran in there like Connor Norman just because he's a vet (no offense to him, he's a good special teams player).
- Bane

The schedule actually works against Georgia this year, as the defense will have to be on its game from the start, rather than getting some time to gel and work out the kinks. Over the past three seasons, Grantham has shown he will rely on veterans who know the system, so based on that you’d say the starting lineup against Clemson will include the likes of Norman, Chase Vasser, Mike Thornton and others. But who knows, maybe Grantham uses the spring to work in the current youngsters who haven’t played much (Harvey-Clemons, Dawson, etc.) and the early enrollees (Rankin, Tray Matthews, Chris Mayes, etc.)

I thought the special teams (with the exception of FG kicking) did very well this year. I am not sure if the stats back this up but our coverage teams always seem to do a great job. In that regard, does UGA really need a special teams only coach?

Along those same lines, Mr. (Marshall) Morgan needs some work. It's one thing to miss a few field goals, but most times he's not even in the neighborhood. It didn't really end up costing the Dawgs this year, but at some point that position has to have some improvement. Are there any other options internally in terms of other kickers?
- @homeboyupstairs

There are walk-ons, but the main backup this year, Jamie Lindley, is a senior who is leaving the program. There hasn’t been any inkling of signing anybody, you have to think Morgan is the guy. He certainly was erratic at times this year, but something to remember: As a freshman, Blair Walsh was 15-for-23, and inconsistent enough that Brandon Bogotay was brought in as a preferred walk-on.

Mark Richt is planning on serving as sort of the place-kicking coach. Who knows what kind of effect that will have. But I do know that Richt agrees with you that there isn’t a crying need for an all-encompassing special teams coordinator. And the performance this year – while not quite sterling – was enough to make it less of an issue.

Heard (ESPN.com’s) Chris Low say several times he thinks Richt might hang it up in the next 2-3 years for ministry work. Truth to that?
- Robert Bruce, via Twitter

Well, if I knew if it was true I probably wouldn’t bury it at the end of the mailbag. All I can tell you for sure is he’s not hanging it up after this season. (Richt has a year-end “wrap-up” teleconference scheduled for Thursday afternoon, and he’s continuing to recruit and work as normal.)

It’s always possible Richt will retire to go build homes in the Honduras. That could happen at any time. But what people also have to remember is that Richt believes his current calling is to be at Georgia, be a football coach and affect young people’s lives that way. So until he believes that’s not God’s plan for him anymore, Richt will be the coach at Georgia.

Follow Seth Emerson at @sethemerson.

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