Lang's World: UGA shows they’re good, not great, not yet
On Sunday morning the College Football Playoff committee announced this season’s College Football Playoff participants: Alabama; Clemson; Notre Dame; Oklahoma.
This brought an end to the championship aspirations of several teams, including the Ohio State Buckeyes, who won the Big 10 on Saturday night by thumping Northwestern, 45-21, finishing their season 12-1. It also ended any title hopes for the University of Georgia, who won the SEC East, lost the SEC Championship game against the number 1 overall team in Alabama, 35-28, and finished their season 11-2.
Instead of going for a title, my Dawgs will end their season by playing the Texas Longhorns in the Sugar Bowl. Which isn’t a terrible consolation prize, but it’s also not what UGA supporters were hoping for. After losing last season’s championship game (also to Alabama) in overtime, we just wanted another shot. And we got that chance. But that doesn’t mean we should have another shot at it, at least not right away.
I believe that the University of Georgia Bulldogs are one of the four best college football teams in the country.
At the same time, I do not think the University of Georgia Bulldogs deserve to be in the college football playoff.
These two statements can both be true. UGA can be one of the four best teams in the country without being one of the four remaining teams. As great as UGA has been this season, they’ve also never reached their full potential and haven’t played consistently great, championship-caliber football.
I knew UGA probably would not be able to beat Alabama, but going into the SEC Title game, I was basically just hoping UGA could somehow string together four quarters of good enough football to somehow sneak away with a win.
And they almost did! But here’s the thing about sports: Eventually you will be exposed for who you really are. You can use all the smoke and all the mirrors that you have, all the trick plays and gimmicks, but as the stakes increase, eventually your team will be found out.
Deandre Baker #18 of the Georgia Bulldogs breaks up a pass intended for Stephen Sullivan #10 of the LSU Tigers during the second half at Tiger Stadium on October 13, 2018 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images.
These Dawgs have some holes. We lost our two best offensive players (Nick Chubb and Sony Michel) from last season, the guys who took so much pressure off QB Jake Fromm and basically allowed him to be a game manager instead of forcing him to scramble and make things happen. UGA also entered this season having lost 8 starters from one of the best defenses in the country. And while they eventually rounded into form and became effective, they lacked that one player who could consistently disrupt opposing offenses.
As good as sophomore QB Jake Fromm has been, he has not yet shown that he’s good enough to win at the very highest level. (Which didn’t stop Gary Danielson from gushing about him on CBS for most of the game. I am a fan of both UGA and Fromm, but if Danielson said one more time that Fromm was “more than a game manager,” I was going to throw my hat at the TV.) Fromm is really good. We don’t know if he can be great.
UGA also wasn’t perfect on the sidelines on Saturday, or throughout the season. When you do something once, it can be written off as happenstance or an isolated instance. When you do it again and again, it is who you are. UGA’s offensive coordinator Jim Chaney ebbs and flows, and he’ll have periods where everything clicks, where he runs first and passes second and stays in manageable situations. But when Chaney regularly calls a jet sweep on short yardage, we know that’s just who he is.
If we are who we are when the chips are down, then who is Head Coach Kirby Smart? Because I still haven’t really wrapped my mind grapes around his fake punt call with the clock ticking down. With the score tied at 28 and a little over three minutes left to play, UGA was facing a fourth-and-11 around the 50-yard line. There was a simple yet wise decision waiting to be made: Punt the ball and make Alabama’s backup QB lead a drive the length of the field to get them into field goal range.
Instead, UGA hiked the ball to the upback, who in this case was backup QB Justin Fields. This ostensibly should have given the Fields the chance to make a play, except that Alabama was not fooled in the least. Something seemed to tip them off -- perhaps it was the fact that Fields had not been in on a punt play for THE ENTIRE SEASON? Whatever it was, the play was a disaster.
In many ways, that play was emblematic of the entirety of the Justin Fields experience this season. A five-star QB recruit who arrived just as Jake Fromm settled into the starting job, the Dawgs tried shoehorning Fields into games all season long, trotting him out for a direct snap and carry a few times a game, but Fields was used in a way to be the threat we needed him to become. The Chris Leak/Tim Tebow blueprint was sitting out there waiting to be copied, by Chaney or Smart or someone on UGA’s staff. But nope.
I have no problem with being aggressive and running a fake punt once or twice a season. My problem is doing it on 4th and 11 from the 50 with 3 minutes left to play in a tie game against the number one team in the country. UGA’s previous coach, Mark Richt, was so conservative he made Fox News seem left wing. His playcalling was boring, but it was generally effective. What we learned from watching Richt is that being consistently conservative will make you above average and win you 8-9 games a season, sometimes even 10 or 11. But it won’t win you a title. And after being a bridesmaid for the last 40 years, getting a title is where UGA wanted to be, even if it meant parting ways with a coach everyone liked.
Head coach Kirby Smart of the Georgia Bulldogs reacts during the first half against the LSU Tigers at Tiger Stadium on October 13, 2018 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images.
Kirby Smart has only been the head coach for three seasons, and in that window he’s compiled a record of 32-9. UGA’s been to the SEC Championship each of the last two years, won it once, and Smart currently has the third-best recruiting class in the country coming in next season. By any metric, UGA is in a fantastic place going forward.
As for right now? All along, I felt it was unlikely UGA would return to the final four. UGA was really good this season. They averaged 39.2 points per game. They allowed 311 yards per game, good for 13th in the country. They played six teams ranked in the Top 25 and beat five of them. They led the number one team in the country by two touchdowns in the second half.
All of that wasn’t good enough. This season, UGA could never maintain being the very best version of themselves. With so many young players in key roles, UGA seems set up to be in a great place down the road.
But this is now. Flawed as they were this season, I still think UGA is one of the four best teams in the country. Could they beat the teams that are in the playoff? I think so.
Do they deserve to be in the playoff? Well, UGA twice as many games this season (2) as the four teams that made it lost combined (1). We played Alabama close, but we lost.
The difference between good and great might be razor-thin, but there definitely is a difference. UGA is good. Clemson is good, Oklahoma is good, Notre Dame is good.
Alabama is great. The Dawgs gave them their best shot, twice in the last year, and both times the Tide figured out a way to win.
A wise man once said, When you come at the king, you best not miss. UGA came at the king and missed, twice.
Until UGA shows that they have become definitively better than they are now, someone else deserves that chance at the number one spot.
Good luck, Clemson, OU and Notre Dame. Don’t miss.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Lang Whitaker are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.