Sunday, October 15, 2006

What the Hell's a Vanderbilt?

A little background: in December 1995, I was sitting in the upper deck of the Palace at Auburn Hills for the Great Eight game between Kentucky and UMass. About ten seats down was a gentleman who may or may not had had a few too many. He was clearly rooting against Kentucky, although for reasons unclear, and his way of insulting the Cats was to yell, to no one in particular and to the bemusement of everyone in his section "What the hell's a Vanderbilt!?!" I felt like asking him if he thought that this was some sort of black mark against Kentucky, but this is Detroit, so you don't ask questions.

I tell this story for the reason that I was muttering it to myself yesterday over and over again between 2:00 and 3:30, as the Commodores outplayed Georgia for the entire second half, took a lead, gave it back, and then seized it again on the penultimate play at the end of a 15-play drive that left Georgia no chance for a response. On the one hand, this result should not surprise us. Vandy had been knocking on the door all season and had shown the ability to compete with the mid-tier teams in the SEC. Georgia had been repeatedly knocking on the door of getting upset by an inferior team. On the other hand, with Georgia's talent, a loss to Vandy will always come as a major shock, let alone in a home game (although I'm convinced that home upsets are more likely in early starts because the crowd isn't really into the game).

Georgia's defense is a wreck right now. The defensive line doesn't get pressure and the defensive backs are entirely too passive in their zones. As a result, you have plays like Vandy's third down conversion yesterday when Chris Nickson found a wide open Earl Bennett running in the secondary, as if Georgia could not have guessed that Vandy would throw on third and ten or that they would look for their best receiver. Georgia's defense is broken right now, and they haven't been this broken since the halcyon days of Kevin Ramsey and the unsolvable enigma that were Auburn's crossing routes to Ronney Daniels. The solution might be to play more man coverage and thus to rely on the athleticism of Georgia's defenders (although I don't like the idea of Tra Battle in man coverage over a slot receiver). Otherwise, the defenders need to figure out how to stick to a receiver while in zone coverage. If they haven't figured it out yet, they aren't going to figure it out anytime soon.

The good news is that Georgia's offense played fairly well yesterday, other than the customary drops from the receivers and tight ends. Georgia gained 395 yards in the game, which is more than #2 Michigan gained against the Commodores. Both quarterbacks played fairly well, as Georgia did not have an interception in 30 pass attempts. Georgia only had one turnover for the whole game, but it was a costly one: Kregg Lumpkin's fumble that set Vandy up to take the lead early in the 3rd quarter. The game also represented a disturbing return to 2003 for Georgia: they could not score in the red zone. Ultimately, this was Georgia's biggest offensive weakness on Saturday, as the Dawgs couldn't get the touchdowns that would have allowed the establishment of a comfortable lead. In 2003, Georgia struggled in the red zone because they had a hard time running the ball against a compressed defense. There's no excuse for a similar phenomenon this year, as the line and running backs are better than they were in 2003. In yet another instance, this Georgia team confounds because they have the talent to solve the problems that have them staring down the barrel at 7-5, but they're underachieving.

As of right now, this team is reminding me of 2003 Auburn and 2001 Georgia Tech: two teams that were undone by the loss (and inadequate replacement) of their ace coordinators. The good news is that Mark Richt, like Tommy Tuberville, has shown himself to be a regular General Dwight David Eisenhower (a hint as to one of my contemplated off-season projects) in that his skill lies more in managing talented underlings rather than actual generalship. He won't let the defense continue to be mismanaged into next season.

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