Friday, September 9, 2016

The Games That Don't Matter

Nicholls State, or Nicholls, as they apparently prefer to be called (and who am I to argue?) comes knocking tomorrow morning.  I will climb out of bed somewhere in the neighborhood of 7am, walk my dogs, maybe even have a little pre-game warmup (read: Whiskey)... and then head over to the local bar to take in what should be, in no uncertain terms, a cake walk.  No one is expecting much out of Nicholls, even Nicholls.  They are coming to the slaughterhouse, and leaving with a nice big check.

Eason will start.  He gets his first start at home, with a very friendly crowd.  Unlike in recent years, this will probably be a full stadium (at least by the start of the 2nd quarter, when the hair-of-the-dawg students shake off the cobwebs and roll in).  With the size and skill match-ups heavily favoring the Dawgs, it is likely that he will have a barn-burner of a day.

The new offensive line will get another game to gel.

The defense will face an offensive "attack" which struggled mightily to score points last season.

I heard we may be auditioning cheerleaders at kicker.

This is one of those games that doesn't matter.

But it does.

This game matters to a great many in that stadium.  It's Kirby Smart's first home game in Athens since 1999.  That matters.  It's the first start for Jacob Eason, possibly the season's first appearance of Sony Michel.  That matters.   It's an undefeated team's next challenge.  That matters.

But, much of the enthusiasm for those storylines will wane before the second-half kickoff.  For certain people in the stadium, though, that will be when the game begins to heat up.  There are players on that team, and parents in the stands, and people watching at home... who are LIVING for the second half of UGA-Nicholls.  There are freshmen who weren't among the most highly-touted recruits, but who have worked right alongside them through the spring and summer... they'll only see that field if the DAWGS show up to play ball.  There are seniors who have pushed themselves for four and five years to work up to this moment.  There are parents who have never been to a big-time college football game before who will be so swallowed up in the atmosphere, they may almost miss the moment their boy runs out of the tunnel for the first time.

And, if there are any parents like those who birthed this writer, there will be an aging man sitting on a couch in a lakehouse, watching the game in air conditioned comfort, who leaps from his seated position when the camera catches a glimpse of his boy running onto the field for his first action.  You see, that boy isn't supposed to play at UGA.  He's undersized.  He's less than spectacularly talented.  He's just happy to wear the G on his helmet, and be in the presence of it all.

These games, though - these are the games when that boy - that young man - that football player - gets a few shining moments to live out a dream.  These are the games when all the two-a-days, all the 4am workouts, all the sprints, all the mat-drills, all the pain that comes with wearing the red and black just falls away, and the player gets to be a kid again.  He'll get to go out on that field and compete, and he'll do so with a confidence that Jacob Eason and Nick Chubb and Dominick Sanders will never feel - because he'll know that no matter what happens, no matter what HE does... there is absolutely NO WAY that he can cause UGA to lose this game... because we'll be waaaaay too far ahead by the time he gets in.

People often laugh about these games.  The only way these games matter, they believe, is if we somehow lose, or if some superstar gets hurt.  But there are over 100 kids on that team.. and for some, this may be the only game they play all season.  Even for the starters, it's only 1 of 15 (max).  Think for a moment if the thing you love most to do in the world, you're only able to do 15 times in a year.  Wouldn't that matter?

Everyone has chalked up a win for UGA.  We're ranked in the top 10.  (And, let me pause here for a second.  We're ranked in the top 10 now.  The Top 10.  We come back to defeat a basketball school in a game played in our own state, and we jump into the Top Freaking 10.  No, we don't jump into the top 10... we do some kind of Olympic Decathlete Sprinting Long Jump into the sandy pit at the top of the collegiate football landscape.  Seriously, I almost wrote a completely separate blog about the fact that one win somehow vaulted us 9 positions in the polls - a sign that either, despite what was a less than stellar overall performance, we're drastically better than anyone could have foreseen - or just further proof that preseason polls are absolute horseshit.  But, I digress.)  We're going to win, and we should win big.  This game will look more like Mark Richt's debut at Miami than it will any home opener we can remember in quite some time.  But, I implore you not to turn your TV off or get involved in a drunken, heated, Trump-Clinton debate in the second half.  Watch the game.  It matters.

Go Dawgs.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

New Beginnings...

This morning, a good many UGA fans woke up with a fantastic feeling in their collective gut.  There is a feeling of hope, and of pride.  There is a sense of change and a "return to glory."  I get that.  I was wrapping up my Senior Season at UGA when Jim Donnan was fired.  I remember very well Mark Richt coming into UGA.  That first season was a turbulent one.  8-4 was not a stellar record (it was what got the last guy fired)... but it featured a landmark victory at Tennessee.  When the Hobnail Boot went down, the UGA Faithful stood up and dared to believe that the change that had come would usher in a new era.

It did.

I moved to Los Angeles in early 2002, and for an entire football season, drove 90 minutes or so in some of the worst traffic I'd ever seen to sit in a bar full of Dawgs and watch our first SEC Title Season in 20 years come down the pipes.  I remember the magic, the chest-thumping, the breath-stealing moments of that season.  I remember women swooning over Mark Richt each time the cameras caught the Head Man on the sidelines.  I remember an undue sense of pride in the accomplishments of a team that (though I had been a part of it only 2 years prior, and though many of my friends still were on the field) I was simply watching.  It dawned on me then what my new role was.

I was a supporter, and that was all.

For 15 seasons I supported Mark Richt's Bulldogs, and the Head Man himself.  I was no blind-follower, though.  I questioned decisions.  I critiqued.  I would not give in too quickly to undue hype, though I did commonly predict undefeated seasons.  I was ever faithful that these teams would deliver, and often understanding when games didn't quite go our way.  I held on until the end.

The End came.

I stayed away from the blogosphere for the offseason - I didn't pay much attention to our signees.  I didn't watch the G-Day game.  I didn't read what was happening at summer camp.  I went on with my life.  And so, I rode into yesterday curious.  There were some known factors.. our O-Line would be a question mark.  Chubb would hopefully be back to form.  Glambert would be Glambert.  And Kirby Smart... a man under whose coaching eye (GradAssist at the time) I spent a single season as a football player, would be taking the first steps in his journey as a Head Coach at the same school.

Sitting here the morning after, I look back on the new beginnings we saw yesterday, and I am pleased.

Nick Chubb begins again - yes, we all knew what he COULD do.  We all knew the beast he WAS... but that was a season ago, before his knee was bent in directions usually reserved for Russian Circus Performers.  He ripped off 222 yards and 2 TDs, with his final run being the biggest.  That 55-yard burst was what we had been waiting for since October.  He looked good earlier in the game, breaking a few tackles, but perhaps protecting his knee in some moments where previously he wouldn't have given it a second thought.  But on that play, he took the toss, he hit the hole, and he ratcheted up another gear to beat EVERYONE to the end zone.  Nick Chubb was back, and the next chapter of his career at UGA has begun.  He was a Freshman Phenom, then the Heir-Apparent... and now he truly is a Comeback Kid.

Brian Herrien begins with a bang.  Kirby was apparently near tears when Herrien's first carry went for an 18-yard score.  This is a quality kid.  He received no offers because no college thought he'd be able to qualify, and in today's climate, coaches don't take chances on kids they don't think can show up and help them win in the fall.  But, this kid wanted to come to UGA BADLY.  So he worked his tail off, got his grades up, and got his offer.  All the talk had been about Holyfield... but an injury prevented him from going.  So when Chubb needed a rest, (and Douglas was no longer the best option due to his fumble), the staff sent Herrien in.  Sometimes people say the championship attitude comes down to "Want To."  This kid has Want To oozing out of his ears.

Jacob Eason begins as a hero.  Sure, he split snaps with Lambert.  Sure, the majority of the fanbase has already anointed him as the future of UGA football.  Sure, he would have had to have come out and been outright awful for the base to turn on him.  But still... an 18-year old kid stepping off the bench to lead the offense to a victory over a Top-25 opponent in a foreign stadium in his very first appearance?  Tossing the longest pass since Gurley hit a 50-yard bomb in '14?  That's the kind of thing that births mythology.  I'm not sitting here saying Eason should start every game from here on in - because I don't believe that.  I believe that he should do what the coaches plan for him to do.  What we saw out there wasn't Eason defying odds.  It was Eason following his coaching, and a very carefully scripted package of plays.  His role will expand, and it will come along as it is directed by the coaching staff... but this was a fitting beginning for The Future.

The Special Teams Unit begins as a pumpkin.  Maybe they'll be the ride we want to show up to the dance in someday, but we're gonna need more magic than we got yesterday if they're gonna take Cinderella to the Crystal Ball.  Ham's kicks were the stuff nightmares are made of, and that kick-6, well... isn't that exactly the thing that a Special Teams Coordinator was supposed to be able to prevent?

Mo Smith begins as a Harbinger of Tomorrow.  He left Alabama because he couldn't get playing time, and became a starter at UGA after only a few weeks of practice.  What does that say?  It says that UGA's depth chart needs work, and Mo is the kind of player we want to see.  Kirby Smart came to UGA as a brilliant recruiter from AL, and if he can close a living room anywhere close to how Saban does at Bama, the talent in Athens should be on an upswing.  That's not to say we haven't had great classes in recent years... we have.  But, even though you're top 15 in the nation, if you're only #5 or #6 in the SEC, it's easy to see why division and conference titles are tough to come by.  Mo has things on which he needs to improve, that was obvious - he has to be stronger in setting the edge, his play recognition can still use some brushing up... but his mid-play recovery is excellent, and that's something we'll need when we face teams like Auburn and Tech who love deception.

The Defense begins as a WiP.  Overall, our defense allowed 17 points.  You can't hate that.  Yes, 24 on the scoreboard due to the Great Pumpkin, but the actual Scrimmage Defense allowed 17 points to a (as judged by no merit, but preseason hype only) top 25 team.  The D-Line HAS to improve.  The Front 7 overall HAS to improve.  I sat in a bar watching the game, and on a nearby TV was USC-BAMA.  There is a marked difference between UGA and the gold standard of SEC football.  Those guys play with their hair on fire and a swagger usually reserved for the only post-pubescent kid in the junior high locker room.  The Georgia Front-7 ain't there yet.  We have the talent to get there... and in games when the Big10 officiating crew isn't ignoring o-line holding like a mother ignores her child's obvious flaws, we may actually find a pass rush.  Still, there needs to be a bigger sense of urgency.  Again, something that (according to our fanbase) plagued Richt's teams seems to still be an issue.  If we find a Pass-Rush and spend a little more time wrapping up big backs, this defense could be very solid.  

Finally, Kirby Smart, who played for the same Head Coach as me at UGA, who coached (Grad Assist) me at UGA, has returned to UGA and is 1-0 in his first season as a Head Coach.  The first one is under his belt, and I'm certain he'll never forget it.  He inherited a good team, and it is now his job to make it a great one.  He's definitely started off on the right foot.

Maybe I'll get to support HIM for 15 years.  One can only hope.

To new beginnings.

Go Dawgs.