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.
2. One of the most compelling quarterback situations to watch this offseason and heading into next season is at LSU. Anthony Jennings started 12 of 13 games this season while Brandon Harris started just one while appearing in eight games. Harris was a highly touted recruit who arrived in Baton Rouge with much anticipation but it was Jennings who maintained a grip on the starting job after Harris' lone start in a loss to Auburn. Harris' high school coach at Parkway High in Bossier City, Louisiana, said he tried to talk Harris into transferring to a junior college for a season but that Harris is "all in" for staying and wants to "compete." It'll be interesting to see what results.
Around the SEC
- Plenty of fresh faces are likely to emerge as starting quarterbacks in the SEC in 2015. AL.com ranks the projected starters.
- A look at Georgia's recruiting class heading into the final week before national signing day.
- South Carolina running back Mike Davis, one of the top backs in the SEC in the last two seasons, received an invitation to the NFL scouting combine.
- Another combine invitee is Alabama quarterback Blake Sims, who will have a chance to prove whether he has a future as an NFL quarterback.
Here's a look at how programs in the SEC are faring on the recruiting trail heading into national signing day on Feb. 4.
ESPN 300 commitments: 19
Who they have: The Crimson Tide are working on a four-peat atop the class rankings, and they continue to build a big lead with 20 ESPN 300 prospects, headlined by five-star CB Kendall Sheffield. Calvin Ridley, the No. 1- ranked receiver in the ESPN 300, leads an offensive group that includes five-star quarterback Blake Barnett and four-stars such as running back Damien Harris, tight end Hale Hentges, guards Lester Cotton, Brandon Kennedy and Richie Petitbon, and center Dallas Warmack. The first tackle in the class committed Dec. 14 when three-star Matt Womack flipped from LSU. Alabama also snagged running back DeSherrius Flowers. Da'Ron Payne is a massive defensive tackle in the defensive class, which includes linebackers Adonis Thomas, Mekhi Brown and Joshua McMillon. In the secondary, Deionte Thompson and Shawn Burgess-Becker join No. 27 overall Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Who they want: With 27 commitments already, Alabama's class is almost full. There are, however, a few remaining targets. Former Arkansas wide receiver commit K.J. Hill took an official visit to Alabama recently, and Holton Hill will take a visit this upcoming weekend. Former commit Daylon Charlot is still in play, but the Crimson Tide will have to battle with LSU for his services.
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Here are our favorite plays of the year:
Hail MarysBahamas Bowl miracle
Central Michigan trailed by 35 points entering the fourth quarter. It trailed by seven when it pulled off a 75-yard, three-lateral Hail Mary as the clock struck :00. The Chippewas failed on the two-point conversion, but their comeback and miracle finish was the craziest play of bowl season.
After blowing a 26-9 fourth-quarter lead, it looked as if Central Florida was done. But East Carolina mismanaged the clock -- taking three knees and a sack -- before giving the ball back to the Knights with 10 seconds left. One 51-yard score later, George O'Leary's crew was celebrating a share of a conference championship.
Arizona scored an absurd 36 points in the fourth quarter, capped by Anu Solomon hitting Austin Hill in the end zone on a 47-yard touchdown that gave the Wildcats a 49-45 win.
Big-guy touchdownsCome to Arkansas, where linemen throw TDs
Who said Bret Bielema offenses were old school? Arkansas' coach loves his linemen, and here he lets 350-pound guard Sebastian Tretola throw for a score in a 45-17 win over UAB.
Tretola's pass was nice, but how about seeing a 400-pounder go up the seam for an 18-yard score in a New Year's Six bowl game? That's what Art Briles and Baylor dreamed up, as Laquon McGowan scored to give Baylor a 20-point lead before Michigan State stormed back to win 42-41.
Boise goes back to the future
Everyone remembers Boise State's introduction to a national college football audience, upsetting Oklahoma with the Statue of Liberty in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. Well, the Broncos brought it back for this year's game, as Jay Ajayi scored from 16 yards out in a 38-30 Boise win.
Fainting Goat gets its own category
Arkansas State can lay claim to the best worst fake punt ever. In theory, one player falls down, draws the attention of the defense and the Red Wolves get a first down. In reality, he got clobbered and Arkansas State's pass was intercepted. But that only made us love it more.
So does this Nebraska false start
Poor Jake Cotton. The Nebraska lineman was just trying to hold his stance, but once all 6-foot-6 and 305 pounds of him starting going backward, there was no turning back.
Year of the freshman RBLeonard Fournette runs over Texas A&M
It was an up-and-down year for the heavily hyped Fournette, but he certainly showed signs of why such big things were expected out of him. Just ask Howard Matthews, who got bowled over on Fournette's way to the end zone in LSU's 23-17 win.
Florida State had fallen behind again. This time, it was 23-10 to rival Miami. But Cook saved the day, with 44- and 26-yard scores to guide the Seminoles to a 30-26 victory.
Freeman could be a game-changer for the Ducks, the kind of every-down power back the team hasn't had in the past. And he can throw it too, as he proved with this touchdown toss to Marcus Mariota against Arizona.
Oklahoma's year certainly ended poorly, but the Sooners have hope for the future following the emergence of Perine. He set the single-game rushing record with 427 yards (and five scores) in a win over Kansas. This 64-yard TD scamper jump-started a comeback win for Oklahoma.
No Todd Gurley? No problem for the Bulldogs, who saw Nick Chubb announce himself as perhaps the best of all the freshman runners with a dominant 266-yard performance against a tough Louisville run defense. It was the most rushing yards by a Georgia back in a bowl and also a Belk Bowl mark.
More top playsNebraska's behind-the-back catch
It was all the way back in August, but this held up as one of the best plays of the year. Wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp went behind the back to grab a pass during a 55-7 Cornhuskers win over Florida Atlantic.
A running back on Joey Bosa? Yeah, that's not going to end well. As dominant as Ohio State was down the stretch, it wouldn't have happened had the Buckeyes not taken care of Penn State. Bosa made sure they finally did, with a 31-24 double-overtime win.
Of all the plays on this list, this is the most important. Trailing Alabama 21-13 in the final seconds of the first half, Evan Spencer took a handoff on a reverse and somehow found Michael Thomas in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown. The lesson? Even Ohio State's receivers are great quarterbacks.
Melvin Gordon's stay atop the record book for single-game rushing yards may have lasted only a week, but that does nothing to diminish his magical performance against Nebraska, when he ran for 408 yards and four touchdowns in a 59-24 rout of the Cornhuskers.
Minnesota may have lost its bowl game, but the Golden Gophers still had the highlight of the game, as tight end Maxx Williams hurdled two defenders en route to a 54-yard touchdown. So it's probably no surprise that Williams declared for the NFL draft after this game.
You can't do much more than a 99-yard touchdown return, and that's exactly what Shaq Thompson did for Washington to kick off the scoring in a 31-7 win over Cal.
2. On a different note, we are officially one week from national signing day. Who’s ready? ESPNU will have wall-to-wall coverage next Wednesday with more than 15 live commitments and reporters on different college campuses across the country. There’s plenty of intrigue with six of the top 10 players in the ESPN 300 still uncommitted, and some believe Auburn, Florida and USC will make the most noise on signing day. The biggest name to watch will be five-star quarterback Kyler Murray, who is in the middle of a Lone Star recruiting battle for the ages. Will he stick with his current Texas A&M commitment or will he flip to the Longhorns and go play for head coach Charlie Strong? We’ll have to wait and see.
Around the SEC
- A look at why the Tosh Lupoi hire makes sense on multiple levels for Alabama.
- Film study: Auburn needs running mates for defensive tackle Montravius Adams inside.
- Can ACL injuries be prevented? Georgia wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell is skeptical.
- Two South Carolina wide receivers have decided to leave the football team.
I love recruiting FLORIDA! 8 more days! #HottyToddy— Chris Kiffin (@Chris_Kiffin) January 27, 2015
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.
So I won’t go that far, but with the first College Football Playoff in our rear-view mirror, I will say that I have a hard time seeing two teams from the same conference ever getting in, at least as long as it remains a four-team format.
And that’s bad news for the SEC.
When it became obvious that a playoff was coming, the initial thought in SEC locales was that the league would be strong enough to merit two teams in a lot of years.
But the College Football Playoff is a different animal, and those of us who thought the SEC might get two seats at the table every couple of years were dead wrong.
The most iron-clad unwritten rule going is that conference champions will get first dibs every time, and I’m not necessarily saying that’s a bad thing.
Ohio State was the fourth team in this season and earned its spot by destroying Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. I’d say the Buckeyes were a worthy participant with the way they mowed down Alabama and Oregon in a span of 12 days.
Once given the stage, they proved they were the best team in the country and did so with a team that many thought was a year away.
Now, could they have navigated their way through the SEC with just one loss and even been in position to make the playoff?
That’s a story for a different day, but it brings into perspective the dilemma the SEC faces in the playoff era.
The grind of the league is what makes it so treacherous. As we saw this bowl season, particularly with regard to the Western Division teams, all bets are off in a one-game season. The West went a very humbling 2-5 and lost every one of its high-profile bowl games.
The SEC West had been hailed all season as the deepest division in the country, and some in the league speculated that it might have been the toughest division in college football history.
At the end of the day, the SEC didn’t have any dominant teams this season. It did have a handful of teams capable of winning a national championship, but most of those teams beat up on each other.
Let’s not forget that Alabama had to survive by one point at Arkansas, pulled out an improbable overtime win at LSU and beat Auburn at home in the regular-season finale despite giving up 630 total yards.
What you saw this season in the SEC is going to be much more indicative of what you’re going to see in the league going forward. That doesn’t mean Alabama is going anywhere, and it also doesn’t mean that Mississippi State is going to win 10 games every year.
What it does mean is that the SEC is going to continue to cannibalize itself, and that’s not good for business in a four-team playoff system.
The East is going to bounce back at some point, and maybe its 5-0 record in bowl games this season is a sign that it may occur sooner rather than later. When it does, the pathway to a national championship will become an even steeper mountain to climb for the SEC.
With that kind of balance on both sides, simply making it through the regular season in the SEC will be harrowing enough. Then comes the SEC championship game and two playoff games.
I remember vividly coaches in the league grumbling when the SEC championship game was created in 1992. A lot of them said then that having to win an extra game would severely hurt their chances of winning a national championship.
They were proved wrong. From 1992 to 2013, the SEC won 11 of the 22 national titles.
Maybe this will be a similar deal, and if (or when) the playoff moves to eight teams in the coming years, the landscape is sure to change again.
The mere fact that a national championship game was played this year without an SEC representative was surreal. And yes, refreshing, too, for all those coaches, players and fans who grew weary over the last decade of hearing about the SEC’s perceived dominance.
Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson might as well have been speaking for everybody outside the SEC’s footprint when he chortled, “At least we don’t have to hear about the SEC for a while,” following the Yellow Jackets’ win over Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl.
Nobody’s suggesting that the SEC’s party is over. It’s still the best conference in college football, and privately, those who’ve coached in the SEC in the past and moved elsewhere will confirm as much.
But now that we’ve had a taste of the playoff, seen how it works and processed it all, it’s not necessarily a party the SEC is going to host every year.
And in some years, the SEC (gasp) might not even get an invite.
This was one of two remaining weekends for recruits to take visits until national signing day. The weekend was full of news including over 10 commitments in the SEC. Here’s a closer look at some of the top news from around the conference this weekend.
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2. Speaking of coaching changes, Alabama announced two new hires to the defensive staff on Monday. First, Tosh Lupoi was promoted from within to become the new outside linebackers coach, filling the void left by Lance Thompson. The former Pac-12 assistant coach spent last season as an analyst for the Crimson Tide. Then, maybe two hours later, multiple reports indicated that former Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker would join Alabama’s staff as the defensive backs coach. The addition of Tucker, who has spent the last 10 seasons in the NFL, means that defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will go back to coaching the inside linebackers. Both new coaches should provide a boost on the recruiting trail.
3. The other big coaching news in the SEC on Monday wasn’t who was leaving, but rather who was staying. Late Sunday night, it looked like Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski was leaving for Illinois. On Monday, he had a change of heart. That’s significant news for the Tigers considering the success of their defensive line in recent years. The players like to call it “D-Line Zou,” but with names like Aldon Smith, Sheldon Richardson, Michael Sam and this year’s stars Shane Ray and Markus Golden, the more appropriate name is “D-Line U.” The news of Kuligowski staying should also help Missouri’s chances with five-star defensive end Terry Beckner Jr., who is scheduled to visit Columbia this weekend.
Around the SEC
- Jeremy Johnson leading receivers as Auburn prepares to emphasize passing game.
- LSU to make nearly $9 million on neutral site games against BYU, Miami.
- New commitment Van Jefferson continues trend of Ole Miss loading up at receiver.
- “This place is unbelievable.” South Carolina wraps up big recruiting weekend.
Best recruiting classes in the past 10 years
TBD San JosÚ St Auburn TBD Ole Miss Florida TBD Alabama Georgia TBD Eastern Kentucky Kentucky TBD Eastern Michigan LSU TBD Vanderbilt Middle Tennessee TBD South Carolina Missouri TBD Arkansas Tennessee TBD Mississippi State Texas A&M