SEC: Todd Grantham

Season report card: Georgia

January, 29, 2014
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An avalanche of injuries and an underperforming defense caused Georgia to slip from its top-five preseason ranking to an 8-5 finish. Let's review.

OFFENSE: B-plus
[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesInjuries took a toll on Todd Gurley and the Bulldogs in 2013.
Georgia's offense deserves a ‘With TG’ grade and a ‘Without TG’ grade because it was a completely different group when star tailback Todd Gurley was healthy. Even with Gurley struggling with a quad injury, the Bulldogs still scored 35 points against Clemson in the season opener. With Gurley out for a month at midseason, the offense sputtered a bit, and the Bulldogs lost twice more. But it's no coincidence that once he returned to the lineup, Georgia won four of its last five regular-season games and nearly pulled off a dramatic upset against eventual SEC champ Auburn. Record-setting quarterback Aaron Murray was the glue to this group until suffering his own season-ending injury -- the unfortunate story of Georgia's season, as receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley and tailback Keith Marshall all missed at least half of the season, as well. Despite the physical setbacks, Mike Bobo's offense still set multiple school records, including a new mark for total offense (484.2 ypg). We'll always wonder what might have been with this group, but it was still a pretty good season.

DEFENSE: D
Georgia fans expected this to be a rebuilding year on defense after losing 12 key contributors off the previous season's defense. But 2013 was a more painful transition than most expected. The Bulldogs gave up some huge point and yardage totals early in the season, and while they did improve a bit as the season progressed, they were still far too inconsistent. They finished the season ranked eighth in the SEC in total defense (375.5 ypg) and tied for 10th in scoring (29 ppg) -- totals that simply weren't good enough for the Bulldogs to live up to their preseason billing once their high-powered offense began to slow down with the injuries. After the season, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and all three defensive assistants left the staff, with former Florida State coordinator Jeremy Pruitt taking over. Georgia returns almost everyone from its 2013 defense, so Pruitt could be set up to enjoy early success.

SPECIAL TEAMS: D
If Marshall Morgan hadn't been one of the best kickers in the nation, this grade might have been even lower. However, Morgan was absurdly good, converting 22 of 24 field goals (including 7-for-8 from 40 yards or more) and all 47 PATs. Otherwise, Georgia's special teams play was a comedy of errors: blocked punts, fumbled snaps, kick returns allowed for touchdowns. Some Bulldogs fans have clamored for Mark Richt to dedicate an assistant coach specifically to improve in this area, but he has thus far resisted that idea. Nonetheless, there wasn't much to like on special teams aside from the kicker making huge strides as a sophomore.

OVERALL: C
Prior to the season, no Georgia fan would have been pleased to learn that the Bulldogs would finish the season with five losses. After nearly playing for a BCS title and returning most everyone on offense from 2012, this was a team expected to at least contend for the SEC East title. It's only fair to cut the Bulldogs a bit of slack (check out what happened at Florida after injuries hit the roster in a similar fashion) for remaining a competitive club despite the physical setbacks. But 8-5 is simply not very good for this program, and it could have been a much better season.

Past grades:
Florida
Auburn
Arkansas
Alabama

SEC lunchtime links

January, 17, 2014
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The coaching revolving door continues to spin as a big recruiting weekend arrives across the country -- including the SEC. Let's take a quick spin around the league.

Alabama responds to a report involving a disassociated booster's display featuring supposedly game-used and autographed game apparel of current and former Crimson Tide football players.

A number of key prospects will visit Columbia for South Carolina's big recruiting weekend.

It's a big recruiting weekend at LSU, as well, with megaprospects Malachi Dupre and Lorenzo Carter among the Tigers' expected visitors.

What do you know? Alabama and Auburn will host some key targets this weekend, as well.

Every SEC program except Missouri and Georgia has had to replace more than 30 coaches since 2001, the year Gary Pinkel and Mark Richt took over those respective programs.

Georgia safety Josh Harvey-Clemons' suspension will stretch into the first three games of the 2014 season according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution report.

Vanderbilt athletic director David Williams said Thursday night that the interview process is not complete as he searches for James Franklin's replacement as head football coach.

Coleman Hutzler is entrusted with improving Florida's uncharacteristically inconsistent special teams units.

Not surprisingly, Ole Miss and Mississippi State are loading up on in-state prospects in this recruiting class -- but this does not appear to be as deep a year for talent in the state as usual.

Chuck Carlton and Kevin Sherrington of the Dallas Morning News discuss whether the Houston Texans should take Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel with the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft.

Former Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham told reporters Thursday that a chance to compete for championships weighed into his decision to leave the SEC for the same job at Louisville.
It appears as if Jeremy Pruitt will have the opportunity to build Georgia's defense according to his own vision. As of Wednesday night, he is the only defensive coach on the Bulldogs' staff.

Multiple media reports Wednesday night have defensive line coach Chris Wilson (leaving for USC) and inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti (going back to the Washington Redskins, where he previously spent 11 seasons as an assistant) joining defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and secondary coach Scott Lakatos as departures from Mark Richt's staff within the last week.

Richt said at Pruitt's introductory press conference on Wednesday morning that Wilson and Olivadotti would remain on staff “if they want to, and as of right now I think they want to.”

Obviously they decided otherwise, leaving Pruitt with three positions to fill. Pruitt will coach the secondary, but he and Richt must identify candidates to fill Grantham's position coaching outside linebackers as well as Wilson's line and Olivadotti's inside linebackers jobs.

In the short term, that might seem alarming for those around the Georgia program, but it no doubt holds some appeal for the Bulldogs' new defensive coordinator. Richt will allow Pruitt to have a major say in picking the new coaches -- if not allow him to hand select them -- much like he did when Grantham joined the staff in 2010 and brought along Lakatos and Warren Belin.

If Georgia is to take a step forward under the new regime, which shouldn't be difficult with 10 starters returning from a young group that ranked eighth in the SEC in total defense (375.5 ypg), it will be because Pruitt and Richt made the correct hires in the coming days and weeks.

Pruitt's arrival after an enormously successful season at Florida State was widely hailed as a home run for Richt, and that's a great start in rebuilding Georgia's defense. That's only the first step, though, and the Bulldogs need to swing for the fences three more times if the defense is to return to the suffocating form that marked the early seasons of Richt's tenure.
As it turns out, Jeremy Pruitt becoming Georgia's defensive coordinator was a decade in the making.

At his introductory press conference in Athens on Wednesday, Pruitt recalled his first meeting with Bulldogs coach Mark Richt in 2003, when the then-high school coach in Fort Payne, Ala., brought some of his players to a camp at UGA.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Pruitt
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsIn one season as Florida State's defensive coordinator, Jeremy Pruitt led the Seminoles to the nation's top scoring defense. He's hoping to duplicate that success at Georgia.
“I had the opportunity to sit down with Coach Richt. That was the first time I ever met him, and when I walked out of that room 30 minutes later I was wowed,” Pruitt said. “My father looked at me and said, ‘That’s what college football is all about.’ I said right then and there if I ever had the opportunity to work for him that I wanted to be a part of his staff.”

Of course, it helped that Pruitt's close friend and college roommate at Alabama, Will Friend, is Georgia's offensive line coach. So over the course of one of their regular chit-chats, Friend naturally reached out to his friend -- whose suffocating Florida State defense just served as a leading factor in the Seminoles' BCS National Championship run -- when defensive coordinator Todd Grantham left Richt's staff to take the same position at Louisville.

Less than two days later, Pruitt became the newest member of the Georgia staff.

“This is the University of Georgia -- who wouldn’t be interested in this job?” Pruitt asked. “It’s absolutely one of the premier jobs in college football, and the opportunity to work with Coach Richt is something I just couldn’t turn down.”

Richt joked that divine intervention might have been a factor in such a quick hire. Whatever influenced the decision, Richt has hired a coach whose star quickly rose within the profession.

A former defensive back at Alabama, Pruitt coached the secondary for three seasons with Nick Saban's Crimson Tide and helped them claim back-to-back BCS titles in 2011 and 2012. He then moved to Florida State, where in his one season as defensive coordinator the Seminoles ranked first nationally in scoring defense (12.1 points per game) and third in total defense (281.4 yards per game) and won a national title.

Georgia will stick with its base 3-4 scheme, although Pruitt emphasized that the Bulldogs will be able to play multiple styles based on opponents' schemes. The main point he emphasized in his introductory meeting with the team was that he plans to keep things simple in order for the Bulldogs to play fast on defense.

“He also said that we’re going to be simple enough to where guys can go and play some football, and he said if we can’t execute it we’re not going to call it,” Richt said. “I think that gave those guys some peace that it won’t be rocket science and they’ll all be able to learn it well enough to play fast enough to prove what they can do.”

Pruitt will take over Scott Lakatos' position as defensive backs coach in addition to his role as defensive coordinator, leaving one spot on Georgia's coaching staff still unfilled: outside linebackers coach. Richt said he expects inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti and defensive line coach Chris Wilson to remain on staff.

He added that Pruitt should be able to hit the road recruiting on Thursday, attempting to hold onto the group of defensive verbal commitments the Bulldogs have already attracted and wrap up Georgia's recruiting class with national signing day only a few weeks away.

The message the new Georgia coach will impart seems clear.

“There’s no doubt that this is the best conference in the country, and I feel like the University of Georgia is the best school in the conference,” Pruitt said. “I wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t think so.”

Season wrap: Georgia

January, 15, 2014
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What started with a bang ended with a whimper for Georgia, with a season full of promise derailed by injuries to key players and defensive lapses at key junctures.

The Bulldogs were in great shape after a grueling first month -- including wins against top-10 teams South Carolina and LSU -- but injuries devastated the roster starting around midseason and Georgia tumbled from a top-five preseason ranking to an 8-5 finish capped by a loss to Nebraska in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. Now the program is in the midst of a rebuilding effort on defense following the departures of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and defensive backs coach Scott Lakatos.

Offensive MVP: The most gifted player on the roster is tailback Todd Gurley, but it was senior quarterback Aaron Murray who carried the team for much of the season, particularly while Gurley was sidelined by an ankle injury. Murray finished as the SEC's career leader in multiple passing categories.

Defensive MVP: Inside linebackers Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera barely came off the field, so they should share this honor. Wilson led the SEC with 133 tackles and was second on the team with 11 tackles for a loss en route to first-team All-SEC honors. Herrera was third in the league with 112 stops.

Best moment: It's tempting to pick Georgia's 44-41 win over LSU, clinched by Murray's touchdown pass to Justin Scott-Wesley with 1:47 to play, but let's go with Georgia's rally from a 20-0 deficit to beat rival Georgia Tech 41-34 in double overtime. That represented Hutson Mason's first career start at quarterback in place of an injured Murray.

Worst moment: Vanderbilt scored 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to rally for a 31-27 win over the injury-depleted Bulldogs. Georgia mustered only 221 yards in the game but still might have won were it not for a fourth-quarter targeting call on fourth down against Wilson that was overturned upon review. The 15-yard penalty remained, however, and kept alive a key Commodores touchdown drive.


Shortly after Georgia made it official that former defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was leaving for the same position at Louisville on Sunday, coach Mark Richt took to Twitter.

"The very best is yet to come!! Go Dawgs!!," Richt tweeted from his official account (@MarkRicht).

He didn't need all 140 characters to send out a message of reassurance, but it proved to be the true definition of foreshadowing after the Bulldogs hired away Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt on Tuesday.

That is what you call highway robbery on the part of Richt. After losing Grantham, whose young defense ranked 45th nationally in total defense (375.5 yards per game) but tied for 78th in scoring (29) last season, Georgia will now have one of the top, young defensive minds in the sport overseeing its defense. During Florida State's BCS title run, Pruitt's defense ranked first nationally in scoring (12.1) and third in total defense (281.4).

While Grantham enjoyed a load of success with his 2011 defense, his last two years in Athens raised more questions about the future of the Bulldogs' defense as it continued to slide. However, having such a young group to work with stunted the growth of a team that lost some valuable NFL talent from the year before.

But with Grantham moving north, the Bulldogs made a tremendous splash with Pruitt, who will implement his version of the 3-4 scheme that Grantham worked with. That's good news, as far as continuity is concerned.

He'll also help out a secondary that had a tendency to give up big plays (hey there, Nebraska). Last year, the Seminoles' defense ranked first nationally in pass defense (156.6), interceptions (26) and second in defensive pass efficiency (93.8). Before his year at FSU, Pruitt spent three years as Alabama's secondary coach, where the Crimson Tide ranked in the top 10 nationally in defensive pass efficiency and the top 15 in pass defense all three years.

For all those fans who crossed their fingers, hoping to somehow land Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, you have almost a spitting image of him in Pruitt. They have similar backgrounds and styles when it comes to coaching and football upbringings.

Pruitt was also one of Florida State's top recruiters and is well-versed in the art of recruiting in the Southeast. This is a major win for Georgia, which now moves higher in the pecking order when it comes to SEC Eastern Division favorites next season. With a slew of young defensive talent coming back to complement an offense that should still feature a good amount of explosion in 2014, the Bulldogs could be the leaders of the pack when it comes to making it to Atlanta in what is a question-filled Eastern Division.

SEC lunchtime links

January, 13, 2014
Jan 13
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Football season is nearly over, but the news never stops in SEC country – especially with all of the NFL draft announcements, coaching changes and recruiting news churning this week.

Breaking down Auburn's offense

January, 5, 2014
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When last seen on a football field, Auburn’s offense looked unstoppable.

The Tigers mowed through Missouri for an SEC championship game record 677 total yards to pull away for a 59-42 victory. Missouri had a hard enough time finding the ball that day in Atlanta, much less slowing down Auburn’s running game.

Auburn piled up 545 rushing yards in that contest and enters Monday’s Vizio BCS National Championship with an astonishing 1,608 rushing yards in its past four games.

Several of the defensive coordinators who faced Auburn’s offense this season told ESPN.com that clamping down on quarterback Nick Marshall’s ability to run the football was a must if you’re going to keep Auburn from revving up that offensive machine.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLimiting QB Nick Marshall's ability to run is a key to containing Auburn's offense. But that's easier said than done.
Of course, that’s easier said than done, especially when the Tigers are playing at breakneck pace and Marshall is averaging 9 yards per carry on zone-read plays.

“You’ve got to account for Marshall, which means you better have athletic safeties who can tackle him,” Tennessee defensive coordinator John Jancek said. “That’s where we got exposed because he’s exceptional at taking off and making athletic plays in space.”

Jancek saw Marshall toward the latter part of the season, when he was playing his best football. So did Georgia, and Bulldogs defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said Marshall was much improved as a passer.

“Nick has really grown into the position and is much better now than he was at the start of the season,” Grantham said. “He’s got a cannon for an arm and can make plays. He’s really an NFL cornerback. That’s what he is, but he can throw the deep ball, and he’s really good in that offense and gives them another dimension because it truly is 11-on-11 with his ability to run the football.”

Marshall and junior running back Tre Mason both rushed for more than 1,000 yards this season, a telltale sign that the Tigers were doing something right up front.

Both Grantham and LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis said Auburn’s offensive line was the best one they faced all season.

“You’ve got to be ready to play the tempo game and tackle well, but don’t let anybody kid you,” Chavis said. “They’ve got a lot of really good football players in the offensive line. We didn’t play against a better offensive line this year, and I don’t think people are giving that offensive line enough credit.”

LSU was the only team to beat Auburn this season after jumping out to a 21-0 halftime lead and then holding on for a 35-21 rain-soaked win back in September.

“You have to be able to handle all their different looks on the perimeter,” Chavis said. “It will look like the same run, and they’ll end up throwing it. They’re not going to let you cheat and get an extra guy in there. They’re going to put you in a lot of one-on-one situations, and you have to be able to tackle. If not, you’re going to have a hard time with them.”

Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said one of the things Auburn coach Gus Malzahn does best is disguising what he’s doing.

“He’ll use motion and shifts and those types of things, and it doesn't give the players enough time in their heads to recognize it,” Wommack said. “He’ll create the same play over and over again, but it won’t necessarily look the same on the field.

“I’m anxious to see this game. Gus is going to run his offense, but it won’t look the same to Florida State. That’s why Gus is so good. He’ll have some special things.”

Grantham could see Florida State being more multiple in its defensive line and using some three-man fronts.

“An odd front gives Auburn more trouble than an even front,” Grantham said. “I think they’re much better at blocking an even front than they are an odd front. But Auburn is multiple enough to find something it likes and sticking with it.

“Their tempo didn’t bother us. I think that’s a little bit overrated. It’s more their formations, movement, skill of their players and that offensive line. Florida State will have more things in [its] arsenal to stop them and may be able to create more negative plays and get them into third-and-6 or more, and that’s when you’ve got them.”

Even though Auburn doesn’t throw it much, Grantham said sophomore receiver Sammie Coates can change the game in a hurry. Coates averages 22.1 yards per catch and has seven touchdown receptions.

“He’s going to be a steal in the NFL draft,” Grantham said. “With Marshall, you've got to commit extra people to get to the quarterback, which leaves you one-on-one outside with Coates. He’s got the physical skill set to win most of those battles.”

Q&A: Texas A&M DC Mark Snyder

December, 6, 2013
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On Saturday, Auburn and Missouri will meet in the SEC championship game. To preview the game, we spoke with Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, who knows the teams as well as anybody. The Aggies were one of four teams to face both division winners at some point during the season.

Snyder breaks down the game from his vantage point, looks back at Texas A&M’s season and explains why he thinks the SEC will be more defensive next year:

It was Texas A&M’s second year in the SEC. How'd you feel like it went?

Mark Snyder: Obviously, we had some big standards going into the season, but we were so young defensively. We had some injuries, like a lot of teams in the SEC, but I thought as the year went, I saw our defense getting better each and every week. We played pretty decent and had our opportunities against Missouri. Give credit to those guys; they’re good and they got us.

[+] EnlargeMark Snyder
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsMark Snyder sees better times ahead for Texas A&M's young defense.
What’s the mindset now heading into the bowl game?

Snyder: Just get better. Get our younger guys better on my side of the ball. It’s huge getting to a bowl game and having this extra practice time because typically you get into bowl practice and the first week or so you work your young guys to get them ready for next year. For us, those kids are all playing for us. They’re starting. We’re going to have to be careful about how much we do with them, but we’re getting the chance to continue to get better on defense.

Auburn and Missouri will play for the SEC title Saturday. What stands out to you about both of those teams?

Snyder: They got us at different times. Auburn got us earlier than Missouri did. Both have got really good quarterbacks. Nick’s playing well. Obviously, Missouri’s quarterback has played a lot. The difference in the teams I think is Missouri, they’re a very veteran offense -- veteran offensive line, big, tall wide receivers, a quarterback that’s played a lot, a running back that’s back. It’s a very veteran team where Auburn is very, very athletic. They’re just speed across the board from the receiver [Sammie] Coates to Nick Marshall to -- I really like their tailback (Tre Mason), I think he’s really good. If you look at the teams, one’s probably a little bit more experienced, been in the system longer. The other team has tremendous athleticism.

What are your thoughts on Auburn coach Gus Malzahn?

Snyder: He’s done a good job of instilling some beliefs, him and Coach [Gary] Pinkel both. If you look at both of these teams, right now they’re playing with a lot of confidence, so they’re doing a great job instilling some beliefs in their system. For Coach Pinkel, it was a little easier because those guys had been with him for four years. The trick with Gus is this is his first year with some of these guys, and he’s got them to buy in. You need to make a play here or there in those special seasons, and that’s what they’ve done.

Are you surprised with Missouri's run this early in the SEC?

Snyder: Not really. Coach Pinkel has had a culture of success everywhere he’s been. They were pretty beat up last year. You look at a team like Florida, they’re going through it this year, Georgia a little bit, us a little bit. You go through those. The teams with those magical seasons are staying healthy. We were able to do that last year. We didn’t have much depth, but we stayed healthy. That’s half the battle, and that’s hard in this league. There’s got to be some luck involved in there, especially on our side. If you look at the West, it’s every week.

This season was all about the offense in the SEC. A lot of good quarterbacks, a lot of good offenses. Do you see the power shifting back to the defense next season?

Snyder: I would think so. Things are cyclical, there’s no doubt. LSU lost a lot of people on defense. We lost some people, and we were already young, playing with a bunch of freshmen -- Todd [Grantham] was playing with a bunch of freshmen at Georgia -- against some really good quarterbacks. A lot of those guys are moving on now, and it’s not just the quarterbacks. There are going to be some tailbacks, some offensive linemen, just offense in general. And then you’re going to see some of the teams I just mentioned not lose anybody (on defense) and continue to grow up. I will be surprised if you didn’t see better defensive numbers come next year from a bunch of us.
ATHENS, Ga. -- Amarlo Herrera isn't ready to assess Georgia's 2014 defense yet. Not when the Bulldogs still have to play a bowl game before this season is complete.

“We're not talking about that yet,” the Georgia linebacker said after last Saturday's double-overtime win against Georgia Tech. “The season's not over yet. But when the season gets over, we'll start talking about those things and people will remember these [comebacks against Auburn and Georgia Tech].”

Step one in the evolution of a defense that loses only one senior starter -- defensive lineman Garrison Smith -- will be to put together complete games, not just decent halves. Against both Auburn and Georgia Tech, in particular, disastrous starts forced the Bulldogs to mount dramatic rallies in the game's waning possessions.

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
AP Photo/John BazemoreTray Matthews is one of 10 starters that should return on Georgia's defense next fall.
“We've got to stop coming off slow in the first half,” inside linebacker Ramik Wilson said. “We've got to finish, and that's what we've been doing in the second half.”

Wilson has a point. The starts were horrendous -- Auburn scored 27 points and Georgia Tech 20 before halftime -- but Georgia's defense was fairly solid in the second half of more than just those two dramatic comeback bids.

The Bulldogs were awful defensively for most of the first month of the season, with a 28-point second half by Tennessee in Game 5 perhaps ranking as the low point. But since then, Todd Grantham's defense has generally improved as the games progressed.

Since the Tennessee game, the Bulldogs allowed 10 second-half touchdowns in seven games -- half of those coming when opponent scoring started at the 50-yard line or closer because of errors by Georgia's offense or special teams. In the last month of the regular season, the Bulldogs allowed seven second-half points to both Georgia Tech and Kentucky, zero to Appalachian State and 16 to Auburn, although the final six came on a 73-yard Ricardo Louis touchdown catch for the game-winning score after Bulldogs safeties Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews failed to bat down an off-target pass.

“We said it felt like it was like the Auburn game,” Herrera said of the Bulldogs' rally from a 20-0 deficit against Georgia Tech. “We just had to step up and we had to make plays real quick before it got ugly.”

The Tech game was already bordering on ugly before the Bulldogs salvaged it with their second-half rally. They argued afterward that the comeback was an example of their season-long persistence, even against long odds.

“Everybody knows about the tipped pass at Auburn and people wanted to know how we would bounce back off that. Well, we're 2-0 off that loss,” said sophomore cornerback Sheldon Dawson, who was victimized in coverage on several of Tech's biggest passes. “It's not about how you fall because you're going to fall in this game of football. You're going to fall many times. It's just you've got to get back up.

“Like for myself, to me I had a poor game, but how did I respond? I just tried to keep playing and show my teammates that I'm playing to get better on the next drive.”

The hope for Grantham and his staff is that the rocky moments that Dawson and many other youthful defenders experienced this season will become learning tools as they mature. The 2013 defense was simply not consistent enough, as its program-worst point (opponents averaged 29.4 ppg) and yardage (381.2 ypg) totals reflect, but there were occasional flashes of promise, as well.

He used the game-ending, fourth-down pass breakup to clinch the win against Georgia Tech as an example -- which easily could have been the third such key fourth-down stop by his defense had one of his safeties properly defended Auburn's last-gasp throw or had an official kept the flag in his pocket instead of incorrectly penalizing Wilson for targeting on a fourth-quarter pass breakup against Vanderbilt.

“That's the third fourth-down situation that we've had this year. We had one at Vandy, we had one at Auburn and we had one here,” Grantham said. “We've got a lot of young players on our team that will grow from it and they'll get confidence from it and we're going to develop them and move forward and win a bunch of games.”

The talent clearly exists for Grantham's projection to become reality. Harvey-Clemons, Matthews, outside linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd, defensive end Ray Drew, Herrera and Wilson -- all of them should be back in 2014. If they and their defensive cohorts can perform with discipline that matches their physical capabilities, Georgia's defense could take a step forward next fall.

It's on Grantham and company to ensure that such progress occurs.

“Part of coaching and part of a program and part of being what we want to be, when it's going not the way you want it, you find a way to battle back,” Grantham said.
ATHENS, Ga. -- Garrison Smith is prepared for the inevitable and knows what he has to do against Georgia Tech on Saturday -- something Florida's defenders struggled to accomplish in last Saturday's upset loss against a similar Georgia Southern offense.

[+] EnlargeGarrison Smith
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMIGarrison Smith and Georgia's defensive line will have to be disciplined taking on Georgia Tech's option offense.
“You've just got to use your hands and keep [the offensive linemen] off your legs. That's what you've got to do,” the Georgia defensive lineman said. “You're going to get cut [blocked]. That's going to happen. But you've just got to keep playing.”

Smith's first substantial playing time actually came as the result of a questionable cut block that knocked DeAngelo Tyson out of Georgia's 2011 win over the Yellow Jackets. Smith, then a green sophomore, replaced Tyson in the lineup and recorded seven tackles and 1.5 tackles for a loss, earning SEC Co-Defensive Lineman of the Week honors in the process.

Defensive players don't like dealing with triple-option offenses like Georgia Tech (7-4) and Georgia Southern run, and specifically don't like having to keep their eyes out for pesky offensive linemen who consistently dive at their knees.

“It's just like being out on the streets: you've got to keep your head on a swivel and watch your surroundings,” Smith said. “Protect yourself at all times.”

Otherwise you could suffer Tyson's fate. Or even if you manage to protect yourself, you might fail to fill the proper gap and be the goat when the Yellow Jackets break a long run.

That was the issue for Florida's defense last weekend against Georgia Southern, when the Eagles ran 54 times for 429 yards and upset the Gators 26-20.

Afterward, Gators coach Will Muschamp admitted that the challenges presented in defending that scheme leveled the playing field for the FCS Eagles.

“That's why a lot of these schools run it -- because it takes talent out of the equation,” Muschamp told reporters this week. “A lot of talented guys don't like having somebody at their knees every snap, either.”

Georgia (7-4) has improved in each successive game against Georgia Tech's option since Todd Grantham became defensive coordinator in 2010. That first year, the Yellow Jackets ran 77 times for 411 yards and Georgia barely held on for a 42-34 win. The Bulldogs have won easily in each of the last two seasons, with Tech running 53 times for 243 yards in a 31-17 loss in 2011 and 67 times for 302 yards in last season's 42-10 defeat where their only touchdown drive came against reserves in the fourth quarter.

The problem for Georgia, however, is that only three regulars -- Smith, cornerback Damian Swann and outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins -- have played much against the Yellow Jackets' unique attack. It's entirely different from what Georgia's players and coaches see the rest of the season, so that real-time experience is valuable for all parties.

[+] EnlargeVad Lee
Mark Dolejs/USA TODAY SportsVad Lee and Georgia Tech's offense are averaging more than 300 yards rushing per game this season.
“I think the more you see anything, the better you feel about it from that standpoint,” Grantham said. “But they're going to mix up what they do. Every year they try to change up and tweak it.

“But the bottom line, it gets down to players making plays, players executing, being where they need to be, playing with good pad level, playing physical and doing all the things you need to do to stop that kind of offense. Because it's really a team-oriented defense to play against, meaning you've got to take care of your assignment and trust someone's going to be somewhere else because if you don't do that, then you create a seam and that's when they get the explosive plays.”

Tech has largely been successful in that regard. As per usual under Coach Paul Johnson, the Yellow Jackets rank among the national leaders in rushing offense (fourth at 316.1 yards per game). They have scored 16 touchdowns -- 11 rushing, five passing -- that covered at least 20 yards and rushed for 200-plus yards in every game but one. In fact, they've rushed for more than 250 in all but their losses to Virginia Tech (129 yards) and BYU (237).

As long as Georgia's first-time starting quarterback Hutson Mason and his cohorts keep Georgia's high-scoring offense on track, the Bulldogs don't need to hold Tech to fewer than 200 rushing yards to win. If the Bulldogs keep grinding against Tech's deliberate attack and consistently arrive where they're supposed to be to make stops, they should survive.

“Everybody's got to do their job,” said Georgia linebacker Ramik Wilson, the SEC's leading tackler with 119 stops. “Me and Amarlo [Herrera], the inside-box guys, we've got to stop the dive. And we've got two outside linebackers that have got to stop the quarterback. And we've just got to make the plays. If we don't make the plays, we get gashed, so we've got to do our job and everything should be all right.”

That's easier said than done, however, as Muschamp can attest.

“You've got to have your offense moving and scoring because as long as [Tech's offense is] on track and on schedule, it's pretty effective,” Grantham said. “It's when there's a separation and they're off track, whether it be down-and-distance or score, then it becomes more difficult. So that's kind of a team thing right there. Fortunately we've been able to do that the last couple years. But it's a challenge to play it.”

Murray's injury puts damper on home finale

November, 24, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia sent its seniors out the right way with a 59-17 pummeling of Kentucky on Saturday night, but the Bulldogs lost perhaps their most valuable senior of all.

Quarterback Aaron Murray -- who has started every game of his career and on Saturday tied David Greene's school record for most career starts by a non-kicker (52) -- injured his left knee in the second quarter and needed assistance to reach the locker room.

Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said he does not expect Murray to play next Saturday against Georgia Tech, but would not rule him out for the Bulldogs' bowl game, pending the results of an MRI on the injured knee.

“It just was hard to have a lot of fun,” Richt said after the game. “Even right now, I'm glad we won and I'm really proud of how we did, but it's kind of a crummy feeling right now when you think about what Aaron is going through.”

Prior to the injury, Saturday's game was shaping up as a glorious going-away party for the senior quarterback in his final game at Sanford Stadium.

He was the centerpiece of an emotional pregame ceremony to honor Georgia's 28 departing seniors, with the home crowd offering a raucous ovation when the SEC's all-time leading passer was the final Bulldog to be introduced. Murray had tossed four touchdown passes (he finished 18-for-23 for 183 yards) and in the first quarter became the first SEC quarterback to pass for 3,000-plus yards in four seasons.

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray
AP Photo/John BazemoreAaron Murray will have an MRI on his left knee to determine the extent of his injury.
But Kentucky defensive lineman Za'Darius Smith slammed Murray to the ground after a pass to Rhett McGowan deflected off the senior receiver and floated to Wildcats linebacker Khalid Henderson at the Kentucky 2-yard line. Murray immediately motioned to the training staff that he needed assistance, and they walked him directly to the locker room with Murray struggling to put any weight on his left leg.

He left Sanford Stadium during the third quarter to undergo an MRI at Athens' St. Mary's Hospital and did not return.

“You could tell in his body language he was hurt,” backup quarterback Hutson Mason said. “It wasn't the same Murray.”

And it was yet another injury in a fall where the Bulldogs (7-4, 5-3 SEC) already lost tailback Keith Marshall and receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley for the season, while tailback Todd Gurley and receivers Chris Conley and Michael Bennett also missed multiple games with an assortment of injuries.

“He did mention that was about how our season has gone as far as injuries and everything,” Richt said of his conversation with Murray at halftime. “It was tough.”

Mason did an admirable job as Murray's replacement -- he finished 13-for-19 for 189 yards and one touchdown, plus a 1-yard scoring plunge -- but Murray's injury put a major damper on what should have been a happy final outing between the hedges for the seniors.

“Seeing Aaron go down, that was tough. That's one of my best friends. He was one of my groomsmen at my wedding, and seeing him go down, I never want him to go down because most of the time it's my fault,” said senior offensive guard Chris Burnette, whose wife, Arielle, was one of Murray's classmates at Tampa (Fla.) Plant High School.

The Bulldogs quickly made it clear that there would be no lingering hangover in the wake of last week's devastating 43-38 loss at Auburn, when the Tigers scored the game-winning touchdown with 25 seconds to play. Georgia needed only three plays to score its first touchdown -- on a 9-yard pass from Murray to McGowan -- and led Kentucky 21-0 after its first three possessions.

Murray and Gurley were the stars of the early onslaught, with the pair hooking up for a 16-yard touchdown where Gurley soared into the end zone -- reminding Bulldogs fans of Knowshon Moreno's memorable 2008 touchdown dive against Arizona State -- that put Georgia up 14-0.

By the time Gurley left in the third quarter of the blowout, he had rushed eight times for 77 yards, caught five passes for 90 yards and scored two touchdowns.

Not to be miss out on the fun, Georgia's defense posted perhaps its finest outing of the season. A week after surrendering 566 yards to Auburn's potent offense, the Bulldogs held Kentucky (2-9, 0-7) to 211 yards -- 69 of which came on Dyshawn Mobley's first-quarter touchdown run, with 30 more coming on a Maxwell Smith touchdown pass to Javess Blue against the defensive reserves late in the fourth quarter.

“We got some turnovers, too, which was good to see,” said Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, whose defense recovered three of Kentucky's six fumbles, with those turnovers leading to 21 Bulldogs points. “Kentucky has not turned the ball over a lot.”

Richt credited the seniors for holding the team together through the spate of injuries and a disappointing season that started with a top-five ranking and BCS title aspirations.

“Even though the season had certain expectations and certain hopes got dashed along the way, the leadership was great,” Richt said. “The unity of our team was rock solid because of those guys. And I've said it a couple times, this was a fun team to coach, but I think it was mostly because of the seniors and how they led this year.”

SEC lunchtime links

November, 18, 2013
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Another wild weekend of SEC football is in the books. Let's take a look at what's being talked about around the league on Monday:

UGA, Kentucky both look to bounce back

November, 18, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Given the way they finished in their most recent outings, it would be understandable if both Georgia and Kentucky have difficulty getting up for Saturday's game in Athens. Because at this point, neither team has much to play for aside from pride.

[+] EnlargeRicardo Louis
Shanna LockwoodRicardo Louis' catch deprived Georgia of any chance at winning the SEC East. Can the Dawgs rebound and play well against Kentucky?
“We need to be able to bounce back,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt, whose team's dramatic fourth-quarter rally went for naught when No. 6 Auburn completed a 73-yard Hail Mary in the final minute to win 43-38. “Kentucky had a tough loss, too, so both teams have to shake it off and get back ready to compete. That's the nature of the business and the nature of the game of football or competitive sports, period. You lose and you've got a game the next week or the next day, depending on the sport, and you've got to shake it off and get back to work.”

Kentucky (2-8, 0-6 SEC) did indeed suffer a difficult defeat, falling 22-6 at Vanderbilt to drop its 14th consecutive conference game. The Wildcats outgained the Commodores 246-172 through three quarters, but Vandy dominated the fourth, enjoying a 141-16 yardage advantage and scoring 13 unanswered points to earn the victory.

But that was just a run-of-the-mill loss compared to the gut-wrenching circumstances by which Georgia lost. The Bulldogs were on the verge of getting blown out early, only to slowly creep back into the game. Then Aaron Murray and the Georgia offense caught fire late, scoring three straight touchdowns and rolling up 216 yards of offense in the fourth quarter alone, only to have Ricardo Louis grab a deflected pass and score the game-winning touchdown on a fourth-down, desperation heave by Nick Marshall.

The loss eliminated Georgia (6-4 overall, 4-3 SEC) from contention in the SEC East and forced the Bulldogs to focus on lesser goals instead of representing the division for a third straight season in the SEC championship game.

“The season isn't over with. We will approach it just like any other game,” said Rantavious Wooten, one of seven seniors who started against Auburn, along with fellow receiver Rhett McGowan, Murray, offensive linemen Chris Burnette, Kenarious Gates and Dallas Lee, and tight end Arthur Lynch. “It's going to be my last game in Sanford Stadium, so we will have to talk to the young guys and tell them to keep the faith and keep fighting.”

There is also the matter of reaching the best bowl possible. Although Georgia's options aren't particularly promising -- the majority of Sunday's bowl projections favor the Bulldogs to play in either the Gator or Music City bowls -- that possibility was off the table for Kentucky weeks ago.

The Wildcats, however, have given Georgia fits in recent years, so the Bulldogs likely can't afford a flat effort. Georgia is 5-2 against Kentucky dating back to a 24-20 loss in Lexington in 2006 -- one of four times in that seven-game stretch where the outcome has been decided by seven points or less.

Considering how Georgia has struggled to finish off opponents -- Saturday was only the most recent heart-stopper for a Bulldogs team that is setting an historically bad pace on defense -- that has to be a cause for concern.

In fact, Georgia's defensive shortcomings were the subject of multiple questions Richt faced on his Sunday teleconference, as Todd Grantham's defense is on pace to set new program marks for most points allowed and most yards allowed.

The 2009 team surrendered 337 points, which is a program high for a season of 12-plus games. This year's team, which is surrendering 30.2 points per game, has already allowed 302 points with three games to play (Kentucky, Georgia Tech and a bowl game). Likewise, the 2013 Bulldogs are on pace to surrender 5,029.7 yards -- potentially just the second time in school history that Georgia allowed 5,000-plus yards after last season's bunch surrendered 5,009 in 14 games.

“Here's what I say: I say we're a team here at Georgia and we're going to keep coaching and keep trying to make improvements and corrections on everything we do, in all phases of the game,” Richt said when asked to rate his level of satisfaction with the defensive coaching staff's performance.

Such a response is common under these circumstances for Richt, who is rarely willing to discuss his concerns publicly. Grantham's defense is preparing to face teams that rank 104th (Kentucky, 349.2 yards per game) and 53rd (Georgia Tech, 432.2) nationally in total offense, so the Bulldogs should have an opportunity to improve their underwhelming defensive stats before the season ends.

It would be much easier to focus on such necessary improvements had safeties Tray Matthews or Josh Harvey-Clemons managed to knock down Auburn's last-gasp touchdown pass to preserve Georgia's comeback win. The Bulldogs would still be alive in the East race and would have a third win against a top-10 opponent this season instead of grasping at less-appealing methods to motivate themselves for their home finale against Kentucky.

That's Richt and company's unique challenge this week after a defeat that could naturally cause lingering dejection -- and the coach said he plans to focus on the positive as best he can.

“We've got to do a good job of, again, pointing out all the positive things that happened and building on those types of things, because there were a lot of tremendous things that happened in the game,” Richt said. “And then make sure we learn from whatever mistakes we had, correct them, have a plan for that, and then we have to get the new game plan in.”

Run defense key to UGA upset bid

November, 11, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Las Vegas seems to believe Georgia has a better chance against Auburn than many members of the Bulldogs' fan base.

When the opening line was released for Saturday's next installment of the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry, placing Auburn as a three-point favorite -- you can also find the Tigers favored by 3.5, depending on where you look -- the overwhelming sentiment in replies from Georgia fans was, "Is that all?"

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNick Marshall's running ability has sparked Auburn's resurgence, but Georgia's run defense is sound.
That question is understandable given that Auburn seems to have the hammer down after Saturday's impressive 55-23 win at Tennessee, while Georgia has been stuck in neutral for a month since a number of its most important offensive players dropped out of the lineup with injuries.

The Bulldogs re-entered the Associated Press Top 25 on Sunday (at No. 25) for the first time since dropping from the rankings after an Oct. 19 loss to Vanderbilt. Yet it's perfectly reasonable to wonder how the Bulldogs possibly can hang with Auburn at Jordan-Hare, even though Georgia has dominated the series thoroughly in recent years.

Not only did the Bulldogs' blowout wins in 2011 (45-7) and 2012 (38-0) pull the all-time series to even at 54-54-8, they gave Georgia wins in six of its last seven meetings with Auburn and threatened the UGA program record for biggest margin of victory over the Tigers (41-0 in 1946).

When the teams kick off on Saturday, Georgia will be riding a string of 76 unanswered points against Auburn that dates back to the first quarter of the 2011 game in Athens. That's thanks in large part to Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray's mastery of the Tigers (he has completed 67.1 percent of his passes in three starts against Auburn, passing for 705 yards, 10 touchdowns and no interceptions) and a defense that has surrendered 238 or fewer yards in each of the last two meetings since Auburn's emotional 49-31 win in 2010 created bad blood on both sides.

Auburn ran 25 times for just 51 yards against Georgia in 2011, Gus Malzahn's final season as the Tigers' offensive coordinator before spending a year at Arkansas State and returning as head coach this season. But it's completely unreasonable to expect such a defensive performance on Saturday against an Auburn rushing attack that now leads the SEC with an average of 320 yards per game.

Former Georgia player Nick Marshall has been exceptional in the Tigers' key wins against Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Tennessee, running for more than 100 yards and two touchdowns against each -- including 214 and two scores in Saturday's win against Tennessee. And running back Tre Mason has scored a touchdown in seven straight games, plus he has rushed for at least 100 yards in four of the last five.

All of that said, run defense is the one area that has been fairly consistent throughout this rebuilding season for Georgia's young defense. The Bulldogs have struggled at times against the pass, but they are fourth in the SEC against the run (126 ypg), setting up perhaps the biggest key to Saturday's game.

If Todd Grantham's defense can slow down Auburn's running game and force Marshall to pass, Georgia's chances of victory increase exponentially. Marshall has attempted 10 or more passes just six times this season and has completed at least 60 percent of his passes in only two of those games.

He's a phenomenal athlete, and he and Mason are both superb runners, but as a pure pocket passer, Marshall scares exactly nobody. Grantham will have the difficult responsibility of finding a way to hem him in and make him throw on Saturday -- something multiple defensive coordinators have attempted, but very few have pulled off effectively.

Auburn's defense hardly resembles the 1985 Chicago Bears -- the Tigers are 10th in the SEC in total defense (394.4 ypg) -- so Georgia will score some points if Bulldogs tailback Todd Gurley is anywhere near full strength after an ankle injury that has plagued him for much of the season.

Grantham's defense probably must deliver its finest effort of the season to keep Saturday's game within reach for Gurley and company, however. If they can't keep Marshall and the Tigers from running wild, that three-point spread that so confused Georgia's fans will probably have seemed generous by the time Saturday's game ends.

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