SEC: Mark Richt

Season report card: Georgia Bulldogs

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
12:00
PM ET
Judge Georgia's season on two fronts.

On one hand, the Bulldogs recorded multiple impressive wins, finished with 10-plus victories for the ninth time in Mark Richt's 14 season and did it without superstar tailback Todd Gurley for half the season. On the other, this easily could have been a much more successful season -- and that's why so many Bulldogs fans are frustrated this offseason.

Offense: B. Before Gurley's suspension for accepting payment for autographed memorabilia, Georgia's offense was nearly unstoppable and he was the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy. The surprise was Georgia's rushing effectiveness even without Gurley, with freshman Nick Chubb running for a ridiculous 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns. Senior quarterback Hutson Mason was OK, setting a school record with a 67.9 completion percentage, but the offense was not as dangerous on downfield throws as it had been in recent seasons. At times, it was Chubb-or-bust.

Defense: B. Overall, Jeremy Pruitt had an encouraging first season as the Bulldogs' defensive coordinator, but a common thread in the Bulldogs' three losses was that Pruitt's bunch failed to get stops. They gave up 35.3 points per game in the three losses -- including an awful 38 points and 418 rushing yards to a previously inept Florida offense -- and 16.3 ppg in the 10 wins. The Bulldogs have to do a better job against the run (166.8 ypg) to take a step forward in 2015.

Special teams: B-plus. Although kicker Marshall Morgan was not as zoned in as he had been in 2013 -- a late missed chip shot against South Carolina was particularly critical -- Georgia's special teams units improved overall. Most importantly, they were truly dangerous in the return game for the first time in several years. Georgia returned four kicks for touchdowns -- three by freshman Isaiah McKenzie -- and did a fine job defending kickoffs and punts. It was a big step in the right direction for Georgia.

Coaching: C. Georgia fans were livid with Richt after the debacles against Florida and Georgia Tech, and for good reason. The Florida loss was inexplicable and the Tech game slipped away thanks in no small part to Richt's boneheaded decision to squib kick at the end of regulation. Georgia hammered eventual SEC East champ Missouri 34-0 and had the talent to represent the division in the SEC title game and possibly the College Football Playoff. With that in mind, 10-3 doesn't look so great.

Overall: B. Considering they were without one of the nation's best players for seven games, it's impressive that the Bulldogs didn't fold when Gurley left the lineup. In fact, things looked great when the Bulldogs routed Missouri and Arkansas on the road immediately after Gurley's suspension. But Georgia was unable to keep it together down the stretch, and its overtime loss to Georgia Tech only added insult to injury when the Bulldogs were unable to win the East. It was a solid overall season at Georgia, but it still ended in disappointment.
This question is open to interpretation at Georgia. If we’re talking about the biggest question marks, the Bulldogs have several spots where they lost experienced veterans -- including at receiver, linebacker and defensive line.

But for our purposes, we’ll look at the key position in Georgia’s pro-style offense.

Position to improve: Quarterback

Why it was a problem: It was tempting to pick the young secondary here, but Georgia actually ranked fifth nationally in pass defense, allowing 170.4 yards per game. Instead, let’s discuss why the Bulldogs need to improve at quarterback. It’s not that Hutson Mason was bad in 2014. He set a school record with a 67.9 completion percentage along with 2,168 yards, 21 touchdowns and just four interceptions. But Mason and the Bulldogs struggled to throw the ball downfield at times. Considering how effective Georgia’s passing game has been in the Mark Richt era, it’s crazy to see that Mason passed for at least 200 yards in just one game -- when he had 319 in an upset loss to Florida. Granted, Georgia’s dominant running game meant the Bulldogs rarely needed Mason to carry the offense. But an improved vertical passing attack complementing the running of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel could make Georgia’s offense downright lethal.

How it can be fixed: Sophomore Brice Ramsey seems to be the heir apparent at quarterback, although junior Faton Bauta and redshirt freshman Jacob Park also will take their shots at winning the job between now and September. Blessed with prototypical size (6-foot-3) and a strong throwing arm, Ramsey played the most behind Mason in 2014 and did OK, completing 61.5 percent of his passes (24-for-39) for 333 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. It’s important to mention here that although Ramsey played far less than Mason, he accounted for two of the Bulldogs’ five longest completions of the season (a 47-yard throw to Jonathon Rumph against Kentucky and a 39-yard completion to Chris Conley against Troy). The kid still needs to work on his accuracy and decision-making, but he can sling it. If he wins the starting job ahead of Bauta and Park, it stands to reason that Georgia will take more downfield shots.

Early 2015 outlook: It’s not necessarily a given that Ramsey will be the starter. Bauta’s work ethic is his calling card, and he will certainly put in the work to impress new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. And Park -- also 6-3 and blessed with a rocket arm -- stood out as a member of the scout team during his redshirt season. Park also can run a bit, so he will be another interesting candidate to watch this spring. He certainly has the tools to challenge for the job, but Ramsey will enter spring practice as the front-runner. If he, or whoever becomes the starter, can come close to Mason’s completion percentage and add the deep throw back to Georgia’s passing game, the Bulldogs’ offense could rank among the SEC’s best next season.

SEC morning links

January, 22, 2015
Jan 22
9:00
AM ET
1. Despite some coaching turnover in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and rumors swirling about offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin bolting back into the NFL, Alabama coach Nick Saban isn't exactly rushing to figure out his coaching staff. I'm sure Saban would love to immediately fill the coaching holes left by Kevin Steele (LSU) and Lance Thompson (Auburn), but with the final weeks of recruiting here, Saban just doesn't have the time to do the proper scouting or interviewing. I mean, when you're Nick Saban and Alabama, I think you can get by with not having a couple of coaching positions filled, even at this point in the year.

2. After losing linebackers coach Randy Shannon to Florida, Bret Bielema just plucked an accomplished coach from the Sunshine State to replace him. That man is Vernon Hargreaves II, who brings 30 years of coaching experience to Arkansas. The father of Florida standout cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III has an exhaustive coaching resume, including a national championship with the 2001 Miami Hurricanes, and should also keep that strong recruiting in south Florida that Shannon had. Like Shannon, Hargreaves' ties with the Hurricanes are strong, and he should be a good addition to Bielema's staff. Next up for Bielema? Find on offensive coordinator ...

3. For one of the SEC's most accomplished coaches in the regular season, Wednesday's announcement of a contract extension and a raise should have been considered a no-brainer. But when you haven't won the SEC championship at a school like Georgia since 2005, you can't blame fans for their uneasiness toward their head coach. Still, for all the negativity that Mark Richt has had to deal with from Georgia fans -- some of it is justified -- he's had a heck of a coaching career with the Bulldogs. His .739 winning percentage (136-48 record) ranks fourth among active FBS coaches who have coached at least 100 games in FBS conferences, and he's had nine seasons with 10 or more wins at Georgia in his 14 years in Athens. But with an extension going through 2019 and Richt now making $4 million a year, the time to win an SEC title is now. The Bulldogs are equipped with the talent to make a strong run through the SEC, and you know those same fans unhappy with the lack of championship swag in Georgia's trophy cases won't be pleased with anything less than a title run or two in 2015.

Tweet of the day


Around the SEC
Now that we're hours away from watching Oregon take on Ohio State in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game Presented by AT&T, it makes sense to peer into the not-so-distant future and try to find teams that could -- and should -- compete for conference titles and then some in 2015.

When I look at Georgia, I see a team that appears to be a quarterback away from making a deep run through the SEC and hopping into the second-ever College Football Playoff. And really, the Bulldogs could be the best-equipped team in the SEC for such a season.

Much has been made of coach Mark Richt, who is now 136-48 at Georgia, and his lack of titles. It's been a decade full of missed opportunities since Georgia's last SEC title, but 2015 could provide the remedy for Georgia's blues.

[+] EnlargeNick Chubb
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsBehind running back Nick Chubb, the road to Atlanta -- and potentially beyond -- sets up nicely for the Dawgs.
Offensively, the Bulldogs might have the SEC's best returning running back in Nick Chubb, along with a deep receiving corps, while the defense returns just about everyone from a group that vastly improved under first-year defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt in 2014.

Georgia isn't the perfect team, and won't be the nation's preseason No. 1, but the parts are there for a very big season. And if the Bulldogs fall short of at least a trip to Atlanta for the SEC championship game, there will be a lot of justifiably upset Dawgs fans.

It's time for Georgia to get out of its own way and go win the SEC title before "Georgiaing" replaces "Clemsoning."

Yes, the quarterback situation -- which will be headed by current redshirt freshman Brice Ramsey, redshirt sophomore Faton Bauta and true freshman Jacob Park -- is a little hazy at the moment due to relative inexperience, but there are enough weapons returning on this offense for me to be comfortable throwing the ball. And don't expect any wholesale scheme changes under new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.

As long as the Dawgs are constantly feeding Chubb the ball, that offense will be fine. Much like Todd Gurley, Chubb plays like he's from a different planet. He rushed for 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns in just eight starts. When Gurley started 12 games as a freshman, he ran for 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns. Chubb also averaged 7.1 yards per carry compared to Gurley's 6.2. I'm not trying to say that Chubb is better than Gurley, which he very well could be, but I think the running game is in good hands with the youngster.

Also, don't forget about the speedy, elusive Sony Michel, who could have a bigger role in the offense this fall as well.

The offensive line returns four starters, all upperclassmen. Veterans Malcolm Mitchell and speedy Justin Scott-Wesley lead a talented, young receiving corps that should make up for the losses of Chris Conley and Michael Bennett.

And that's all before we get to what should be an even better defense in 2015. Pruitt did a masterful job getting players adjusted to his defensive philosophy and how he wanted guys to approach games and practice, and he will have an even older group to work with in 2015. The key was getting rush specialists Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd back. They could have flirted with the NFL, but decided to stay in Athens, which was the right move. The two combined for 11 sacks last year, but freshman Lorenzo Carter, who took some starts away from Floyd in 2014, could be a really special player after registering 4.5 sacks, seven tackles for loss and 17 quarterback hurries.

The defensive line will need some retooling with a couple of seniors gone, but the rotation last year was good enough to get guys such as Sterling Bailey and Josh Dawson quality snaps.

Then, there's the secondary that outside of veteran Damian Swann was almost completely comprised of underclassmen, who matured and improved steadily as the season went on. Georgia finished the year second in the SEC in pass defense (170.4 yards per game) and didn't allow any team to pass for more than 142 yards in the final month of the regular season.

The schedule sets up nicely, too. Georgia has two road games within the first month -- Vanderbilt and Tennessee. The Bulldogs get Alabama, South Carolina and Missouri at home before trips to Auburn and Georgia Tech. Tennessee certainly won't be a walk in the park, but Florida and South Carolina are considerable unknowns and both Alabama and Missouri lose a lot from this season.

The bottom line is that this team is loaded and the road to Atlanta -- and potentially beyond -- sets up nicely for the Dawgs. It was set up well this season and Georgia didn't take advantage. That can't happen in 2015. With the state of the East and the strength of the Dawgs, it's unacceptable for the team not to make it to Atlanta. There's little room for excuses for the Dawgs.

Dawgs fans are rightfully restless and tired of the continuous shortcomings. Richt engineered the last title run, and he has a team capable of accomplishing that feat again.
Let's not sit here and act like 2014 wasn't a disappointment for the Georgia Bulldogs. There's a reason head coach Mark Richt sat so comfortably in a hotel meeting room in Hoover, Alabama, and delivered a confident decree about having the SEC East's best team.

And by all accounts, he was right ... well, for the most part. Talent-wise, no other team really should have touched the Bulldogs in a year in which the East was more of a punchline than anything else. But that's why they play the games, and Georgia didn't take advantage of the rest of the league's misfortunes, losing to South Carolina and Florida. Those teams finished the regular season with a combined record of 12-11, and Florida will have a new head coach in 2015. The regular season then culminated with a face-palming overtime loss to rival Georgia Tech.

The Bulldogs then watched as third-year SEC darling Missouri -- a team Georgia housed 34-0 on the road -- waltz into Atlanta and lost to Alabama.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
AP Photo/John BazemoreGeorgia lost Todd Gurley, got him back, then lost him again in a seesaw season. But the Bulldogs can still get a 10th win with a Belk Bowl victory.
So the SEC fell out of the Bulldogs' paws and the College Football Playoff became an afterthought once November got going. Nobody around the Georgia program will say that the 2014 season worked out the way it should have, and 9-3 isn't a record this program envisioned back in August.

But that doesn't mean that getting to 10 wins isn't important, and this team has a lot of pride to play for, especially with their chips down at the moment. A victory in the Belk Bowl over Louisville, which just happens to have old defensive coordinator Todd Grantham on its payroll, on Tuesday would be a big win for a program that has seen more positive days.

It's almost as if the Bulldogs are dealing with a handful of issues all at once. The season ended in tumultuous fashion, but then Georgia lost longtime offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, who is now the head coach at Colorado State. Offensive line coach Will Friend will also leave for CSU after the bowl game.

The Internet is also ablaze with rumors concerning the idea of defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt leaving after just one year. Oh, and dynamic freshman Isaiah McKenzie has been suspended for the bowl game.

In a season that featured the unceremonious end of stud running back Todd Gurley's career in Athens, getting to 10 wins would be considered a major accomplishment at this point. And it's an accomplishment that should be an important goal for the Bulldogs.

Getting to 10 wins would give Richt nine 10-win seasons during his 14-year tenure in Athens. It would also give the Dawgs at least 10 wins for the third time in the last four years. Ten wins is a feat that rivals Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee didn't even come close to sniffing this season. Ten wins would help in recruiting, and it would inject some momentum into this team heading into the offseason and spring.

There should be plenty of motivation on the Dawgs' sideline this week. Quarterback Hutson Mason, who had the tall task of replacing record-setting starter Aaron Murray, wants to erase some of the pain of that Georgia Tech loss with a win over a solid Louisville squad. There's no doubt that Pruitt would love to win the defensive battle over Grantham, who is no doubt licking his chops at the opportunity to face Georgia's offense. And then there's just the simple fact that Georgia is a program that should enter the 10-win realm because it's, well, Georgia.

Athletic director Greg McGarity has already talked about the importance of 10 wins for the Bulldogs and Richt. What's coming down the tracks in Athens is unknown, but this program needs some momentum going into 2015. There will be a new offensive coordinator and a new quarterback taking over. With enough solid talent coming back on both sides, the expectations will continue to be high, but entering 2015 with a more positive outlook internally wouldn't be so bad.

SEC rivalries that need to happen

December, 23, 2014
12/23/14
1:30
PM ET
With the Allstate Sugar Bowl rekindling a great coaching rivalry in Nick Saban vs. Urban Meyer, it got me to thinking (shocker, I know): There are some SEC rivalries that I'd love to see take off in the near future.

What Saban and Meyer did -- and what Saban keeps doing -- in the SEC has changed the landscape of the league. And even though they met just three times in the SEC, we all wanted to watch when they did. So why not have a few games that we all get hyped up for when they come around?

I came up with five games that I want to see turn into or turn back into great rivalries to get your popcorn ready for. Of course, scheduling hurts most of these games, but maybe the right people will hear me out ...

Have a few of your own rivalries you want to see in the SEC? List them below!

1. Alabama vs. Florida: Remember when these two just couldn't stop playing each other in the SEC championship games in the 90s? Remember the Meyer-Saban days? Now, there's another ex-Saban assistant -- Jim McElwain -- coaching the Gators, and a chance of redemption in Gainesville. Saban and Alabama are the class of the SEC, just like Florida was in the 90s. Having these guys good at the same time and playing against each other, more often than not, is good for the league.

2. Arkansas vs. Auburn: OK, so these two play every year, but, man, amping up the Gus Malzahn-Bret Bielema storyline would be great. They've both exchanged words with each other, there's been controversy, and they are both the antithesis of each other when it comes to offensive philosophies. This game has the chance to be fun for everyone who cares anything concerned with SEC football. The quiet Malzahn vs. the brash Bielema is too good not to be on everyone's radar each year.

3. Georgia vs. LSU: The Tigers hold a 16-13-1 series lead over Georgia, and that 44-41 Georgia win in 2013 was one for the ages. These two are two of the best in their respective divisions, and should play a lot more than they do, but with the new scheduling format, we have to wait and wait. I mean who wouldn't want to see the laid back Mark Richt in his signature sunglasses taking on the Mad Hatter more? Two very different, yet very successful coaching styles meeting more often just needs to happen.

4. Ole Miss vs. Tennessee: These two went back-and-forth in the 1970s, but Tennessee has dominated the series. However, with Hugh Freeze at the helm in Oxford, this has the chance to be a fun little rivalry to keep an eye on. Why? Well, Freeze coached in the state of Tennessee for more than a decade and can recruit in Butch Jones' backyard when needed. The two played in a lopsided Ole Miss win this year, but with Tennessee trending up with its young talent, these two could have much more competitive games in the future.

5. Missouri vs. Texas A&M: I mean, they were together in the Big 12, and it only makes sense that they ignite those old bitter feelings for each other. Honestly, this game should be played every year because of that. You have two very impressive coaching résumés and two schools that entered the SEC poking their own chests out at the SEC elite. It's been great, so let's get them back on the schedule!

Honorable mention

Auburn vs. Florida: This was one of the great rivalries in the league before it was basically discontinued in 2003. There have been classics in the past and the 2000s brought us some nail-biters in this game, as well. It was sad for both fan bases when this game got cut from both schools' regular schedules, but now Will Muschamp is at Auburn, so hopefully these two can meet while he's still on the Plains.

South Carolina season review

December, 18, 2014
12/18/14
1:00
PM ET
Following three straight 11-win seasons, South Carolina’s expectations remained high when the Gamecocks opened the 2014 season as a top-10 club. But it became clear early in the season that Steve Spurrier’s club would not live up to that standard.

An unusually porous defense -- the Gamecocks are 91st nationally in total defense, allowing 433.6 yards per game -- was the biggest culprit as South Carolina slipped to 6-6 and fifth in the SEC East. Quarterback Dylan Thompson (SEC-high 3,280 passing yards) and the offense did good work, but the key for the Gamecocks moving forward will be to move back toward the stifling defense that marked their best seasons under Spurrier.

Here is a recap of South Carolina’s season to this point:

Best win: After dropping the season opener 52-28 to Texas A&M, with Aggies quarterback Kenny Hill looking like a Heisman Trophy contender, South Carolina turned around and upset then-No. 6 Georgia two weeks later. The Gamecocks’ porous defense faced first-and-goal at the South Carolina 4 late in the game, but forced Georgia to attempt a 28-yard field goal -- which Bulldogs kicker Marshall Morgan missed. Bulldogs coach Mark Richt would later lament not handing the ball to Todd Gurley, who ran for 131 yards and a touchdown. South Carolina held onto the ball for the final 4:24 and escaped with a 38-35 victory.

Worst loss: There are some doozies to choose from -- such as the embarrassing opening loss to Texas A&M and an overtime defeat to Tennessee -- but a 45-38 loss at Kentucky probably stands out as the worst. South Carolina held a two-touchdown lead midway through the fourth quarter before Kentucky’s Jojo Kemp (131 yards, 3 TDs) took over and Alvin Dupree scored the game-winning touchdown with a pick-six off a deflection with 2:29 to play. South Carolina’s other losses were at least to bowl teams. The Kentucky loss was when it became absolutely clear that the Gamecocks weren’t very good this year.

Player of the year: A.J. Cann. This was probably not what Cann expected when he opted to return for his senior season, but the Gamecocks’ starting left guard continued to dominate at his position. South Carolina fell well short of its 11-win standard of the previous several seasons, but Cann still played championship-caliber football and might earn attention on some postseason All-America teams in addition to the All-SEC honors he already won from the league’s coaches and media.

Breakout player: Pharoh Cooper. The 5-foot-11 Cooper is emerging as one of the SEC’s most versatile and explosive offensive performers. He leads the Gamecocks with 60 catches for 966 yards and eight touchdowns, plus he ran for 198 yards and two touchdowns and passed for two more touchdowns after taking direct snaps. Cooper even returns punts for the Gamecocks, averaging 5.6 yards per return. Just a sophomore, Cooper is on the cusp of becoming a superstar thanks to the many ways he can impact the game.

Play of the year: Let’s not narrow it to one. Let’s look at three from South Carolina’s 45-42 loss to Tennessee. The Gamecocks might have lost that game, but it was not for lack of effort from Cooper. The sophomore broke a school record with 233 receiving yards and two touchdowns on 11 catches.

Here’s his 85-yard touchdown catch that gave the Gamecocks a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter.

video

Cooper also took a direct snap and tossed a 30-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Wilds:

video

And he ran 11 yards for South Carolina’s first touchdown.

video 2015 outlook: South Carolina’s offense typically carried the team in 2014, and that group loses a ton of veteran talent after the bowl game. If some underclassmen (like running back Mike Davis) choose to join the seniors in the draft pool, it could be a total rebuilding year on offense, much like what the defense went through this season. Defensive improvement might be the key to a better 2015 for South Carolina, however. Lorenzo Ward’s unit was a huge disappointment this fall, and that young group simply has to play better for South Carolina to contend again in the SEC East.

Georgia season review

December, 16, 2014
12/16/14
1:00
PM ET
Should it cap the season with a win against Louisville in the Belk Bowl, Georgia (9-3, 6-2 SEC) has a chance to finish in the top 10 in the final polls. But this will go down as another season where the Bulldogs are left to consider what might have been.

What could they have done if star running back Todd Gurley hadn’t missed half the season -- first because of an NCAA eligibility case and later because of a season-ending knee injury? What might have happened if they had finished better in winnable games against South Carolina and Georgia Tech?

An SEC East title and a playoff spot were attainable goals for Georgia this season, so the Bulldogs have to feel some disappointment after the regular season because of their missed opportunities.

Let’s recap:

Best win: Only days after Georgia coach Mark Richt first sat down Gurley about the eligibility issue, the Bulldogs traveled to Missouri and blasted the Tigers 34-0. The Bulldogs picked off four Maty Mauk passes and held Mizzou to 147 yards of total offense, and freshman Nick Chubb proved to be a capable replacement for Gurley, rushing 38 times for 143 yards and a score. Honorable mention goes to Georgia’s 34-7 win against Auburn, when Gurley and Chubb led a rushing attack that accumulated 289 yards. Jeremy Pruitt’s defense also limited Auburn’s explosive offense to 292 total yards.

Worst loss: The circumstances behind Georgia’s 38-20 loss to Florida on Nov. 1 made the loss even more painful. The writing was on the wall that Gators coach Will Muschamp was on his way out, and Florida’s offense seemingly couldn’t do anything right leading into its trip to Jacksonville. But the Gators ran all over Georgia that day, posting 418 rushing yards -- the second most ever against a UGA defense -- en route to an enormous upset of then-No. 9 Georgia. Florida’s win stopped Georgia’s three-game series winning streak, and briefly gave Muschamp hope of staying on as head coach.

Player of year: Chubb. Gurley would have cruised to this honor since he was once the leading candidate to win the Heisman Trophy. But you can’t win for half a season of work. Chubb was a force once the opportunity arrived. With Gurley available for the first five games, Chubb ran just 31 times for 224 yards. Over the final seven games, the freshman ran 155 times for 1,057 yards. Chubb ranks second in the SEC in rushing (1,281 yards), was named SEC Freshman of the Year, and made the first-team All-SEC squad for both the coaches and media.

Breakout player: Isaiah McKenzie. Since we have already discussed Chubb, how about a guy who breathed life into Georgia’s awful return game? Georgia hadn’t returned a punt for a touchdown since the 2011 season when McKenzie took one to the house against Troy. He repeated the feat with a 59-yard runback against Kentucky, on a day when he also took the opening kickoff back 90 yards for a score. At the end of the regular season, the freshman nicknamed "The Human Joystick" because of his slippery moves is averaging 12.1 yards per punt return and 28.1 yards per kickoff return.

Play of year: Instead of narrowing it down to one play, let’s recap five of Gurley’s greatest hits from the season. His UGA career ended in disappointment, but he’ll still go down as one of the greatest Bulldogs running backs ever. Here’s a reminder of why:

A 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Clemson.

His 51-yard touchdown run against Tennessee.

A 26-yard run against Tennessee where he hurdled a defender.

When he took a direct snap in the Wildcat and floated a 50-yard pass to tight end Jeb Blazevich against Vanderbilt.

His first touch upon his return from suspension, when he returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown against Auburn (although it was called back on a penalty).

2015 outlook: Even without Gurley and some important seniors -- namely linebackers Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson, cornerback Damian Swann, receivers Michael Bennett and Chris Conley, and quarterback Hutson Mason -- Georgia still has reason for optimism next season. For starters, Richt announced over the weekend that outside linebackers Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins, receiver Malcolm Mitchell and left tackle John Theus will all return. If Georgia can find a consistent replacement for Mason under center, Chubb and the returning skill talent should help the offense remain productive. It’s reasonable to expect the defense to keep improving in Year 2 under Pruitt, as well.
Todd Grantham said he has not communicated with his former co-workers at Georgia in the eight days since learning that his new team, Louisville, will face the Bulldogs in the Dec. 30 Belk Bowl.

On a Monday conversation with reporters, the first-year Louisville defensive coordinator downplayed any competitive advantage he might have gleaned from practicing against most of the Bulldogs’ players over the previous four seasons as a Mark Richt assistant.

“It still gets down to getting off blocks, tackling people, winning one-on-one matchups on both sides of the ball, so I don’t think that’ll play as big a factor as you guys will make it out to be,” Grantham said. “I think it gets down to just playing football. Obviously they’re a talented team. They’re one of the best offenses in the country, so we know we’ve got to play well and be ready for a big challenge.”

[+] EnlargeTodd Grantham
AP Photo/Timothy D. EasleyTodd Grantham's Louisville defense leads the nation in interceptions and is tied for seventh in sacks.
A veteran assistant like Grantham has plenty of experience in situations like this, coaching against friends, former co-workers or ex-players several times each season. While he understands the intrigue surrounding his coaching against a program where he was on staff less than a year ago, Grantham said it doesn’t add extra juice to the bowl game from his perspective.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for the people there -- both the coaches and the players,” Grantham said. “This isn’t the first time that a coach has faced a team that he was coaching the year before. It’s part of the business. We’ve had a great season. We went 9-3 and it’s a chance for us to send our seniors out the right way because they really did believe in our system when we came here.”

That they did. Former Louisville coach Charlie Strong left a strong defensive identity behind when he left for Texas after last season, and the Cardinals have thrived in the first season under Grantham’s leadership. Despite losing safety Calvin Pryor and defensive end Marcus Smith to the first round of the NFL draft, Louisville still ranks sixth nationally in total defense, allowing 293.3 yards per game.

Further, the Cardinals lead the nation in interceptions (25), rank fourth in third-down defense (28.2 percent) and are tied for seventh in sacks (3.25 per game). They’re in the top 20 in turnovers gained (T12, 28), scoring defense (18th, 20.5 points per game) and red zone defense (T19, 27 opponent scores in 36 red zone possessions).

Not bad for a first season in a new conference -- and Grantham said it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

“Our main focus and vision is to win the ACC and compete for a national title, and after one year here and the recruiting class we’re having, I’m more convinced than ever that we can reach that goal,” Grantham said.

That sounds very much like the sales pitch that Grantham used to make while wearing Georgia’s red and black. Replace ACC with SEC and insert Florida instead of Florida State as the opponent he has circled as the roadblock standing between his team and the championships it wants to win.

Grantham’s tenure at Georgia ended with a bit of a flop -- the young Bulldogs surrendered 29 points and 375.5 yards per game last season -- as fans and media questioned his job security throughout the 2013 season.

“We obviously had a really young team last year and we kind of faced some veteran offenses, some veteran quarterbacks, and because of that, we had to take some shots with those guys, but I think they got better for it,” Grantham recalled. “They were able to mature and I think that’s one of the reasons they’re able to have some success right now.”

Two of those young players, cornerback Shaq Wiggins and safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, followed Grantham to Louisville and sat out this season as transfers. Grantham credited the former Bulldogs for their work on the scout team and said he expects them to compete for starting jobs in 2015.

As for Georgia, Grantham said he remains proud of what the program accomplished in his four seasons there -- a time where the Bulldogs won SEC East titles in 2011 and 2012 and dominated rivals Florida, Georgia Tech, Auburn and Tennessee with an 11-1 record in his final three seasons.

That’s what Grantham said he remembers about his Georgia tenure, not the last season where he came under fire.

“I’ve always known I was a good coach in what I was doing,” Grantham said. “I think if you go back and look at the changes we were able to establish and make at the University of Georgia in my time there, we were able to win games, we were able to put, really, Georgia back on the map from being relevant.”

SEC morning links

December, 11, 2014
12/11/14
8:00
AM ET
1. The race to replace senior Bo Wallace as Ole Miss’ quarterback just got a bit more interesting. ESPN JC50 prospect Chad Kelly committed to the Rebels on Wednesday, and the former Clemson backup will have two years to play two at Ole Miss. With Wallace, a three-year starter, leaving the team after the 2014 season, the Rebels had a huge question at quarterback for 2015. DeVante Kincade, Ryan Buchanan and Kendrick Doss are all freshmen with limited game experience at best. Kelly adds a veteran presence to the group, having played in five games at Clemson in 2013, and he might become an immediate frontrunner Insider to claim the job once he arrives on campus.

2. It probably won’t come as much of a surprise that three of the five FBS assistant coaches who make more than $1 million per year reside in the SEC: Alabama’s Kirby Smart and LSU’s Cam Cameron and John Chavis. This according to USA Today’s assistant coach salary database that it published on Wednesday. Not surprisingly, the SEC also had three of the top four highest-paid coaching staffs (LSU, Alabama and Auburn) and six of the top 13 (adding Texas A&M, South Carolina and Georgia). Take a look. They also have a database for head coaches (eight SEC coaches are in the top 20, led by Alabama’s Nick Saban) and a multiple-byline feature on assistants like Dennis Erickson and Greg Robinson who now make a comfortable living after once serving as head coaches.

3. The Jacobs Blocking Trophy -- which goes to the player selected by the SEC’s coaches as the league’s top blocker -- is one of the conference's oldest awards. LSU’s La’el Collins won the award on Wednesday, joining a list of dozens of winners who wound up playing in the NFL. Collins could already be doing that if he wanted. It was an option after he earned All-SEC honors as a junior, but unlike many of his teammates in recent seasons, Collins opted to play his senior season at LSU. It seems to have been a wise decision. Several publications have covered this territory already, but with college football’s underclassmen preparing to make their announcements on whether they will make early jumps to the pros, Collins serves as a good reminder of how players who return can sometimes help their cause. Because of an outstanding senior season, Collins will almost certainly be a much wealthier man for having waited than he would have been had he entered the 2014 draft. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. Insider and Todd McShay Insider both include Collins among their top 27 overall prospects. That leap doesn’t happen for every draft prospect who stays, but it’s a nice story -- and it’s a valuable lesson for players who are in similar positions this year.

Around the SEC

" More all-conference honors went out on Wednesday, with the SEC’s coaches naming their individual award winners and Athlon Sports posting its All-SEC team.

" With defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin preparing to coach Florida’s bowl game, the Gainesville Sun’s Pat Dooley examines how interim coaches have fared in the past with the Gators.

" The Lexington Herald-Leader’s Jennifer Smith explores whether Kentucky’s six-game losing streak to end the season will hurt the Wildcats on the recruiting trail.

" Tennessee coach Butch Jones’ new contract extension increases his buyout to $4 million should he choose to leave before March 2016.

Tweet of the day

Grantham reunion 'interesting' for UGA

December, 8, 2014
12/08/14
4:00
PM ET
Mark down Georgia graduate assistant Christian Robinson for making the understatement of the year on Sunday shortly after the Bulldogs' bowl matchup became public knowledge.

"This will be interesting,” Robinson tweeted.

No kidding.



There are subplots galore in the Belk Bowl pairing between Georgia (9-3) and Louisville (9-3), but the biggest one centers around who will be standing across the field from the Bulldogs. Not just volatile defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who joined Bobby Petrino's Louisville staff in January after spending the previous four seasons at Georgia, but also defensive backs Shaq Wiggins and Josh Harvey-Clemons, who followed Grantham from Athens to Louisville.

Both sides will do their best to downplay any hurt feelings that accompanied those exits, where Grantham left after fans and media regularly questioned his job security during a disappointing 2013 season and Harvey-Clemons (dismissal) and Wiggins (transfer) leaving shortly thereafter.

In fact, Georgia coach Mark Richt attempted to do as much on Sunday. But rest assured, the winner will privately take a great deal of satisfaction in the outcome. That's nearly as much of an understatement as former UGA linebacker Robinson's tweet.

It was Grantham, after all, who was Robinson's defensive coordinator in the final three seasons of his career. In 2011 and 2012, Grantham's defense played a big role in the Bulldogs winning the SEC East both seasons and posting a combined 8-0 record against rivals Florida, Auburn, Tennessee and Georgia Tech. It was Grantham, also, who helped Robinson land the graduate assistant-ship at his alma mater, bringing Robinson onto the 2013 coaching staff shortly after the St. Louis Rams released him during preseason camp.

But things went south last season, with a rebuilding defense struggling mightily by surrendering 29 points per game and Grantham becoming the target of much of the fans' wrath. When Louisville offered a pay raise and the chance to add his brother, Tony, to Petrino's coaching staff, it felt like the best move for all involved for Grantham to change locales.

By and large, the results have been positive for both parties. Richt hired an entirely new defensive coaching staff, led by new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, and Georgia's defense has improved over its 2013 performance. And while Louisville lost two defensive starters to the first round of the NFL draft, Grantham's Cardinals defense still ranks sixth nationally by allowing 293.3 yards per game.

His defense is doing that without the services of Harvey-Clemons or Wiggins, who are both sitting out the season as transfers. But the awkwardness of the situation is not lost on the Bulldogs, current or former. Wiggins' tweet after the bowl announcement showed that he was amused by the pairing, and he and former UGA teammate Ryne Rankin traded messages about it later in the afternoon.


Compounding the potential unpleasantness is the presence of Petrino himself. It has been seven years removed from when he abandoned the Atlanta Falcons in midseason in order to take the head coaching job at Arkansas, but it's safe to say many sports fans in the Peach State will never forgive him for the way he handled his exit.

Former Georgia quarterback D.J. Shockley experienced the whole thing first-hand as a backup quarterback with the Falcons during Petrino's short tenure. He weighed in on the matchup Sunday, as well.



However, we've long since crossed this bridge with Petrino. He coached against Georgia twice during his time at Arkansas, so the stories about his coaching against a Georgia-based team have already been written.

Shoehorning his departure from the Falcons into some sort of rivalry with Georgia always felt like a stretch, anyway. Not so with Grantham. This is a game that the Bulldogs' former defensive coordinator desperately wants to win, and surely his former co-workers feel the same way.

Robinson was right. It's sure to be interesting when their teams meet up on Dec. 30.

SEC morning links

December, 2, 2014
12/02/14
8:00
AM ET
1. It's not a huge surprise, but it is noteworthy that South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier confirmed that he'll be back in 2015. In classic Spurrier fashion, he gave a quality soundbite, claiming he'll probably be back for at least a couple more years: “Give me two or three more,” he said. “I used to say four or five, now I’m down to two or three. I mean, I could get in a car wreck, but I’m definitely planning on being back.” One interesting side note is that Spurrier said he doesn't plan, at the moment, to fire any of his assistant coaches. He did intimate that a reorganization of the staff could occur, but the fact that nobody will be dismissed is interesting since defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward came under fire after the Gamecocks defense struggled this season.

2. Saturday will be Missouri's fourth conference championship game of the Gary Pinkel era, and the Tigers have yet to win one. Last year's 59-42 loss to Auburn was, in fact, the closest they've come to winning in terms of final margin. Missouri plans to ignore that history when it faces No. 1 Alabama on Saturday. “We prepare for this game like we prepare for any game, and we won’t ever change that,” Pinkel said. “This is the fifth divisional championship we have won in the last eight years and we have not won a conference championship in the Big 12 or the SEC. That’s my responsibility, so hopefully we can play well and have an opportunity to do that.”

3. Two SEC assistant coaches who have had strong seasons found themselves named as finalists Monday for the Broyles Award, which goes to the nation's top assistant coach. Those two? Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and Missouri defensive coordinator Dave Steckel. Not coincidentally, both are coaching teams that are playing in the SEC championship game. Steckel's defense has been key for the Tigers, who have endured an inconsistent offense this season. And the work Kiffin has done with starter Blake Sims and the Alabama offense is noteworthy, considering the Crimson Tide have even mixed it up at times, going to a faster tempo, something unusual for Nick Saban.

Around the SEC
Tweet of the day

There was a time not so long ago where Mark Richt was arguably having one of his better coaching seasons as Georgia’s head Bulldog in charge. Today, you won’t find anyone who would make that argument.

Not after Richt’s decision to squib kick with 18 seconds left in regulation against Georgia Tech – a call that he later ranked among his dumbest decisions as Georgia’s coach – gave the Yellow Jackets time to tie the game with a last-second field goal and then win in overtime.

Or after a consistently terrible Florida offense suddenly looked like the mid-90s Nebraska Cornhuskers by running all over Georgia’s defense in an enormous upset, following two road wins where the Bulldogs seemingly could do no wrong.

Such has been the peaks-and-valleys nature of this season for the Bulldogs -- and that’s saying something at UGA, which frequently ranks among the nation’s most schizophrenic programs.

Flash back to Nov. 1, when the Bulldogs rolled into Jacksonville at 6-1. Sure, Georgia had suffered a disappointing loss to South Carolina early in the season, but Richt seemed to have righted the ship even while superstar running back Todd Gurley was suspended.

Richt sat down the Heisman Trophy front-runner only days before the Bulldogs’ key road trip to Missouri, when allegations began to emerge that Gurley accepted payment for signing memorabilia. The junior star eventually received a four-game suspension for breaking NCAA rules, but the daunting two-game road swing to Mizzou and Arkansas at the start of his suspension could not have gone better for Georgia.

The Bulldogs drilled Mizzou 34-0 and then jumped out to a 38-6 halftime lead over Arkansas before winning 45-32, with freshman running back Nick Chubb establishing himself as Georgia’s next backfield superstar.

Things were looking good. Although some Georgia fans were angry that the school didn’t obstruct the NCAA’s investigation as other programs have – thereby keeping their star player eligible to compete despite possible rules violations – Richt looked like a coach who was doing his job the right way and his short-handed team was still succeeding.

But that narrative ended against Florida, when the Gators rushed for 424 yards in a 38-20 victory. Only one Georgia opponent (Auburn with 430 in 1978) had ever rushed for more yards in a game against the Bulldogs.

It was arguably the worst loss in Richt’s 14 seasons at Georgia, and yet somehow the Bulldogs didn’t go into a tailspin. They blew out Kentucky and, more impressively, then-No. 9 Auburn in Gurley’s return to action.

Although Gurley suffered a season-ending knee injury late in the Auburn win, things still seemed to be looking up again for the Bulldogs. Having completed their SEC schedule at 6-2, they stood a good chance of representing the SEC East if Mizzou were to lose another conference game. They had a cupcake opponent left in Charleston Southern, followed by the home finale against Georgia Tech, which had beaten Richt only once in 13 tries.

It looked like Georgia was in good shape to reach Atlanta on a high note and maybe even gain some retribution for its heartbreaking loss to Alabama in the 2012 SEC championship game by knocking the Crimson Tide out of the playoff picture.

Maybe it was Georgia’s renewed optimism that made last weekend even more painful. Mizzou spoiled the Bulldogs’ SEC plans by rallying to beat Arkansas on Friday. Playing for an SEC title was out the window, and the Bulldogs played like a deflated bunch the following afternoon against Georgia Tech.

However, despite a sloppy performance, the Bulldogs were still in position to win after Malcolm Mitchell’s go-ahead touchdown catch with 18 seconds to play. That’s when Georgia’s decision to squib kick helped the Yellow Jackets open their final possession at their own 43-yard line. When quarterback Justin Thomas scrambled for 21 yards on the next play, the Yellow Jackets had a chance to attempt a game-tying field goal at the buzzer, and Harrison Butker was good from 53 yards.

The bungled final minute came back to haunt Richt and Georgia once Tech won in overtime, creating an understandable meltdown within the Bulldogs' fan base. In a matter of about 20 hours, the Bulldogs had slipped from SEC championship – and possible College Football Playoff – contender to likely participant in yet another mid-level bowl game. The weekend could hardly have turned out any worse.

Welcome to Georgia fandom over the last couple of seasons. Richt’s 2013 team entered the season with national title hopes only to have the year derailed by injuries to key players. They came into 2014 with more modest expectations, but the Bulldogs were still the best team in the East when it felt like proving it deserved that label.

Instead, the losses to two of its biggest rivals encapsulated what will go down as a disappointing season for the Bulldogs. They’ll enter bowl season with a 9-3 record, and getting to 10 wins would be a fine accomplishment, but this is a team that was capable of much more.

Georgia certainly good enough to win the East and had a decent shot at cracking the playoff field at one point.

Georgia didn’t accomplish any of those goals, though, and the Bulldogs have only themselves to blame for those failures.
In Georgia, they call the Georgia-Georgia Tech rivalry “Clean Old-Fashioned Hate” because of the mutual dislike between the two schools.

The dislike remains as strong as ever, but the rivalry has lost some of its luster since Mark Richt became Georgia’s coach in 2001. The Bulldogs (9-2) are 12-1 against the Yellow Jackets (9-2) under Richt, and it will be an upset if they lose this week. Richt’s tenure is full of close games, however, and it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see another hotly contested matchup between the two rivals.

ESPN football writers Matt Fortuna and David Ching break down the classic ACC-SEC rivalry below:

[+] EnlargeJustin Thomas
Daniel Shirey/Getty ImagesWhile Justin Thomas has shown an ability to throw the ball, Georgia Tech's offensive gameplan still involves pounding its opposition on the ground.
Key to victory for Georgia Tech:There is nothing fancy on the agenda of the Yellow Jackets entering Athens: They must win the turnover battle. Georgia Tech is tied for No. 9 nationally in turnover margin (plus-10); Georgia is No. 2 (plus-16). The difference between the two teams is that the Bulldogs have a pretty good defense, one that is ranked No. 13 nationally. The same cannot exactly be said for the Jackets (61st nationally), who have made up for that by regularly taking the ball away. The triple-option offense, of course, is only painful for the opposition to defend when it's efficient, as Georgia Tech can shorten the game and limit the other offense's scoring opportunities.

Key to victory for Georgia: Sure, Tech is more versatile on offense this season, but the No. 1 task in beating the Jackets is slowing down its option rushing game. Tech ranks third nationally with 327.9 rushing yards per game. Tech is better at passing -- Georgia learned that lesson the hard way last season -- but the Jackets won’t bother putting the ball in the air if their running game is moving the chains and eating clock. Georgia has to keep Justin Thomas, Synjyn Days and Zach Laskey on the sidelines as long as possible.

X-factor for Georgia Tech:Georgia Tech's offense is typically capable of beating you with its arm when you least expect it, but this year's outfit can do some serious damage in the passing game. Thomas has surprised everyone under center, and a big key to that has been his favorite target: DeAndre Smelter, a 6-foot-3, 222-pounder who is second in the ACC in yards per catch (21.0).

X-Factor for Georgia: It’s not only on the defensive front to slow down Tech’s running game and keep the Jackets’ offense on the sidelines. If the Bulldogs’ offensive line gives freshman sensation Nick Chubb (161 carries, 1,152 yards, 11 TDs) room to run and quarterback Hutson Mason can put together some long scoring drives, that would be another way to neutralize what Tech does best.

Fortuna’s favorite moment from the rivalry:It's not every day you lose the passing game battle by a 407-19 margin and still win, but that's exactly what happened to Georgia Tech in its 2008 trip to Sanford Stadium. The Jackets beat Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 pick in the following spring's NFL Draft, 45-42 behind 409 yards on the ground. It was coach Paul Johnson's first game in the rivalry, and his team came back from 16 down at the half to pull off the upset and break a seven-game losing streak in the series. It is Georgia Tech's only win in the rivalry in the last 13 years.

Ching’s favorite moment from the rivalry: I covered this game nine times and there were plenty of memorable moments on the field: Tony Taylor, Paul Oliver and Mohamed Massaquoi’s heroics in Georgia’s 2006 comeback win; the “We Run This State” game where Georgia backs Caleb King and Washaun Ealey combined for 349 rushing yards in 2009; a wild 2010 contest that Georgia eventually won 42-34; last year’s double-overtime classic where Tech broke out to a 20-0 lead and the Bulldogs rallied back to win 41-34. But the moment I remember most probably also came in the 2008 game. It was when beloved radio announcer Larry Munson -- who had retired earlier that season -- made his final appearance at Sanford Stadium and Georgia’s fans chanted the 86-year-old legend’s name during an in-game ceremony honoring his four decades as the Bulldogs’ play-by-play man. It was cool to see the fans show their appreciation to a man who had enriched their lives for so many years.
ATHENS, Ga. -- With Auburn's high-powered, electrifying run-first offense approaching, Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt spent just about every night during the week leading up to Saturday's game working on his game plan until 4 a.m.

[+] EnlargeCameron Artis-Payne
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia's defense held Cameron Artis-Payne to just 86 yards rushing, and the entire Auburn rushing attack to 150 yards total. The Bulldogs won, 34-7.
After watching his team give up 632 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns combined in the last two games, including a mind-blowing 418 yards in a blowout loss to Florida, Pruitt couldn't risk being another victim to the Tigers' vaunted rushing attack. So he cut back sleep to add on hours of preparation.

His plan worked like a charm, as the Bulldogs stuffed Auburn's rushing offense in their 34-7 win on Saturday, allowing the Tigers to leave with just 150 rushing yards. That was the second-lowest output of the season by Auburn, and its lowest in conference play.

"Most of our defenses were designed to try to stop the run, and that was it," coach Mark Richt said after the game.

When facing a Gus Malzahn offensive attack, there's never really a clear answer on what to do. Honestly, you hope for Auburn to make a mistake. But under the bright lights of Sanford Stadium, the Dawgs imposed their will on an Auburn offense that registered Malzahn lows in points (seven) and total yards (292).

Georgia forced seven third downs with 5 or more yards to go, and held Auburn to just 17 total first downs.

Richt said there were some formations implemented to defend the pass, but for the most part, Georgia's defense was set up to take the run away, which in turn took Auburn's offense away. Instead of letting quarterback Nick Marshall, the offensive catalyst, hurt the Dawgs with his legs on the zone-read, they made sure to force the give on the read as much as possible. That meant the Bulldogs could stack the box consistently with someone setting the edge and taking Marshall out of the play.

"We emphasized keying in on them and running up field to set the edge," linebacker Lorenzo Carter said. "That's what Coach Pruitt really put a big emphasis on this week in practice, and we hunkered down and made plays."

Marshall walked away with only 153 total yards and zero touchdowns, while the Bulldogs strutted away with arguably their best defensive showing of the season. Richt described the play of his defense as "up and down" this season, but the constant has been that it's improved in some way just about every week.

For as young as this defense is in spots, it has continued to evolve under Pruitt, who is in his first year as Georgia's defensive coordinator. Of course, this defense would like to have the South Carolina and Florida games back, but the reality is that it takes time with a new coordinator to gel with players in his schemes. When you look at the overall statistics, Georgia's defense has been impressive for most of the season. Putting everything together? Well, the Dawgs finally did that against a top-notch offense Saturday.

"Matchups don't mean anything," cornerback Damian Swann said. "If we go out and do what we do every play, week in and week out, we can be very good, we can be one of the best in the country."

SPONSORED HEADLINES