A Chat with Dawgsports: UGA Football and the Future of our Rivalry

ATHENS GA - NOVEMBER 27: Quarterback Aaron Murray #11 of the Georgia Bulldogs is tackled by Jeremiah Attaochu #45 of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at Sanford Stadium on November 27 2010 in Athens Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

You all probably know that we here at STS hold Georgia at/near the top of the list of collegiate rivals.  Because of this, we think it is important to be familiar with our neighbors to the West.  We caught up with Kyle over at www.dawgsports.com to discuss Georgia's football program and toss around ideas to get Clemson and UGA to renew their football rivalry sooner rather than later.  Kyle does a great job and has a very informative and objective site, so I would encourage you to head on over there and check Dawgsports out.

And now the goodies:

STS:  This is the end of year one without Willie Martinez. What have you seen out of the Dawgs’ defense that differs from last season from a strategy and from a fundamental point of view? What will it take moving forward to get this group back to the level it played at several years back under Brian VanGorder?

Dawgsports:  The shift from the 4-3 to the 3-4 has been a difficult one, and some of the bad habits the Bulldogs developed under the previous regime have been tough to break. The Red and Black have played with greater tenacity, and there has been a much stronger focus on assignment football, but there has been a distinct learning curve, leading to some major gaffes when players have been out of position.

Many of the numbers have been disappointing, as Georgia finished the regular season ranked seventh in the SEC in both rushing defense and scoring defense, as well as sixth in pass defense. Todd Grantham’s troops also allowed the conference’s worst third-down conversion percentage. However, the Bulldogs ended up fourth in the league in total defense, led the SEC in stopping the opposition on fourth down, and showed marked improvement on penalties incurred and turnover margin after being atrocious in both categories in 2009.

While the Red and Black faithful had hoped the players would become more acclimated to the new system, particularly toward the end of the year, it is important to remember that Willie Martinez’s defenses declined every autumn. Todd Grantham halted the free fall, which, while unsatisfying, was a necessary first step in the direction of improvement. When you find yourself in a hole, the way to start improving your situation is to quit digging. If Georgia continues along the learning curve and recruits players suited to Coach Grantham’s system, progress will follow where until recently regression was the norm.

We were not impressed watching Georgia’s defensive line this season, especially early on against South Carolina. The Dawgs gave up nearly 150 ypg on the ground this year. Did you see improvement over the course of the year and what do you expect out of this area moving forward?

The front seven appeared to have come together as a unit around midseason, but the Bulldog D struggled down the stretch against unconventional offenses. Todd Grantham’s coaching pedigree is impressive, but he only just returned to the college ranks after a lengthy stint in the NFL, where offensive innovations are so few and far between that the wildcat formation is considered a game-changer.

Urban Meyer’s, Gus Malzahn’s, and Paul Johnson’s offenses are quite different from the attacks Coach Grantham saw at the next level, and it showed. We are hopeful, however, that Coach Grantham, a Nick Saban disciple, is charting the same course the Armani Bear took when he brought the 3-4 to Tuscaloosa, turning in a mediocre first year before putting it together in his second season, but---and this is a big "but" (and I cannot lie)---Georgia needs a mountainous nose guard to plug the middle and make the 3-4 work. That’s why I believe the most important uncommitted recruit Georgia is targeting for signing day isn’t Isaiah Crowell, it’s juco defensive tackle John Jenkins.

Aaron Murray emerged in 2010 to have quite a freshman season. He appeared to improve steadily as the year went along and has the talent/ability to be a stud at the QB position. What is your take on this young man and what do you expect from him next season?

Aaron Murray doesn’t have Matthew Stafford’s arm, D.J. Shockley’s legs, or David Greene’s brain, but he’s only a half-step behind any of those guys in any of those categories, and Murray represents the best combination of all three traits in a single Georgia quarterback since Fran Tarkenton. The redshirt freshman began the year as a question mark and ended the autumn with an exclamation point. I couldn’t be any higher on Aaron Murray if I rolled him up and smoked him with Willie Nelson.

I expect Murray to continue along the same upward trajectory he charted in his first season of varsity competition. Barring injury, he should leave Athens with a compelling statistical case to make for the proposition that he is the best Bulldog quarterback in history; the question is whether experiences like this year’s overtime loss in Jacksonville (in Murray’s worst game in silver britches) will serve as the impetus that drives him to become the sort of leader who guides his team to championships.

A.J. Green is a very special player who, by most folks’ estimation, will enter the 2011 NFL draft. Can you compare the offense in the first four games without Green to the UGA offense after he returned? How big of an impact did his return have on Murray’s passing numbers and what would his departure mean for the 2011 Georgia offense?

The clearest evidence of A.J. Green’s impact on the Georgia offense is the game film from the Colorado game. It was Green’s first game back in the lineup, but, because he had been out for so long, he left the field with cramps for lengthy stretches. The drives without Green were ineffectual and marred by timid play calling; when A.J. was in the lineup, drives ended with him making highlight-reel catches in the end zone.

The absence of the Bulldogs’ best playmaker for the first third of the season caused the coaching staff to be overly conservative about taking the training wheels off of their redshirt freshman quarterback. Had Green been on the field for all twelve games, it might not have hastened Murray’s development, but it certainly would have heightened the coaches’ confidence in Murray’s development, and, even if A.J. hadn’t caught a pass in those first four games, the defense’s need to double-cover Green would have opened up other passing routes and running lanes for the rest of the offense. The tight ends, who came on strong at the end of the year after being invisible for the first half of the season, might have gotten involved earlier.

Green’s departure (which every Georgia fan has expected at least since the midpoint of A.J.’s freshman year) will have an adverse impact, but the effect won’t be as bad next fall as it was for the first four games of this fall. Green’s suspension occurred at the eleventh hour, after the coaches and players had spent the spring and summer preparing to have A.J. in the lineup. In 2011, everyone in Athens will be well aware from the outset that Green is gone, and everything from spring practice forward will be adjusted accordingly.

Just a few years ago Coach Mark Richt appeared to be untouchable and now appears to be on the hot seat in Georgia. We would like to hear your take on the overall situation? Can he turn this thing around and get back to playing for the SEC Championship game? On the flip side, what would cause him to lose his job?

The University of Georgia was chartered in 1785, three years before the U.S. Constitution was ratified, so the institution in Athens is inclined to take the long view. Wally Butts’s Bulldog clubs endured a lengthy downcycle in the 1950s, including an eight-game losing streak to Georgia Tech when the Yellow Jackets were Georgia’s biggest rival. A patient administration was rewarded with the 1959 SEC championship and a four-game winning streak over the Ramblin’ Wreck that allowed Coach Butts to leave the Sanford Stadium sideline as the winningest coach in school history.

Vince Dooley likewise stumbled through a stretch in the early 1970s that saw Georgia finish at .500 three times in a six-year period. Although the natives were getting restless, University president Fred Davison stood by his embattled head coach, giving him a contract extension prior to the 1975 season. Coach Dooley proceeded to win four SEC championships and a national title between 1976 and 1982. He went on to finish his career with more victories than any previous Georgia coach.

In short, patience with coaches who are proven winners has paid off for the Red and Black before, and it likely will again. With a favorable schedule in what presently is the weaker division of the Southeastern Conference, Georgia should be very much in the hunt for the SEC East title in 2011, and Mark Richt can secure his future in the Classic City with any two of the following three achievements next fall: a nine-win regular season, an Eastern Division championship, and/or a win over Florida.

Athletic director Greg McGarity is an Athens native, a Georgia graduate, and a former Bulldog athlete and administrator who served under Dan Magill and Vince Dooley, so his Red and Black pedigree is beyond reproach. Nevertheless, he spent 18 years as Jeremy Foley’s right-hand man in Gainesville, and signs already are evident (e.g., in changes to the Bulldogs’ non-conference schedule and in the midseason firing of Georgia’s volleyball coach) that McGarity is implementing the extremely successful Gator blueprint in Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall. (Oddly enough, this is occurring at a time when Florida is hiring former Georgia players for its football coaching staff.)

Patience is a finite resource, particularly if fan discontent begins to translate into reduced donations by boosters. That has not happened yet, but, if another subpar season is forthcoming in 2011, McGarity will respond to financial pressure from the fan base and will not hesitate to make a move. Next year is a crucial year for Coach Richt, and, by the time the game clock shows a trio of zeroes at Grant Field on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, it will be crystal clear to everyone whether 2012 is destined to become the twelfth of what will be the 20+ years of Mark Richt’s career in Athens or the first year of a new head coach’s era.

I strongly hope and strongly believe that Coach Richt will be guiding the Georgia program for years to come, but there is no denying that 2011 is a pivotal year for the future of Bulldog football. A year from now, Mark Richt will be more than halfway to breaking Vince Dooley’s school record for career victories and will be virtually guaranteed of reaching that milestone, or he’ll be looking for a job.

Finally, we really were hoping to get a matchup with you guys in Nashville, but that did not work out. First, what is your gut feeling on your game with a pretty good Central Florida team? Next, how big would a bowl game between Clemson and UGA have been AND do you think it would be possible to get these two teams involved in some sort of "Kickoff Classic" type football game before our 2013 matchup?

The experience of the last four Liberty Bowls has taught us that, when a mediocre SEC team matches up with a Conference USA champion in Memphis, the result is a competitive ballgame settled by a single score. I don’t take UCF lightly, but I believe the incentive of avoiding a losing season will be powerful enough to motivate the Bulldogs, who have performed well in postseason play under Mark Richt. The fact that former Georgia Tech head coach George O’Leary is on the opposite sideline is an added bonus, as Georgia would like nothing more than to add another loss to his resume.

As a fan who came of age in the 1980s, I strongly support the resumption of the border rivalry between the Bulldogs and the Tigers, and I deeply regret the fact that we are now in the longest gap separating series meetings since the nearby foes first clashed on the gridiron in 1897. Last March, when Dabo Swinney proposed a spring exhibition game between the two teams, fans on both sides of the Savannah River immediately made it plain that this rivalry remains viable. A bowl meeting between the two teams, who have met at neutral sites in Anderson and Augusta, only would have added to the luster of the rivalry.

Fortunately, Greg McGarity’s ascension in Athens offers hope for future renewals of the storied series. Georgia’s new athletic director, who strongly supports keeping the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party in Jacksonville and who arranged next year’s season-opener against Boise State in Atlanta, clearly has no reservations about scheduling games at neutral sites if the money is right. An Atlanta matchup between the programs from the Classic City and Fort Hill would be a natural, as long as the Clemson faithful won’t balk at the idea of playing the Bulldogs in a building called the Georgia Dome . . . and, hey, the Red and Black were willing to play a lot of games against Florida in Jacksonville at a stadium called the Gator Bowl.

Furthermore, McGarity’s previous stint in Athens, which covered the 1973 through 1991 football seasons, coincided with the height of the rivalry between Clemson and Georgia, spanning from freshman Gene Washington’s 97-yard kickoff return to freshman Eric Zeier’s upset of the eventual ACC champions, with some of the series’ most storied moments (it suffices simply to list such names as Mike O’Cain, Scott Woerner, Kevin Butler, and Jeff Treadwell) in between. It came as no surprise, then, that, when explaining his philosophy of non-conference scheduling, McGarity said last September: "Every now and then I think it’s important to play a rival, like Clemson. I think that’s a great series."

By canceling long road trips to face Louisville and Oregon, McGarity has made it easier for the Bulldogs to stay close to home, which, in turn, makes it easier to renew nearby rivalries . . . and there is none nearer or bigger than Georgia’s rivalry with Clemson. The Tigers recently have opened, and the Bulldogs soon will open, a season in the Georgia Dome. We have a home-and-away series set for 2013 and 2014; why not handle this football series the way both Clemson and Georgia handle the baseball series with their in-state rivals, playing one game at home, one game on the road, and one game at a neutral site?

I’m all for it, and, given their respective track records, I think both schools’ athletic directors could be convinced to do it. Let’s make it happen. We’ll see y’all in 2013, if not before.

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