Hairy wants to wave a championship banner.
Good news, Georgia fans! After seven games of the 2011 season, the Bulldogs are better. Currently 5-2, they are only one game away from the win total for all of 2010, and there are five games remaining.
A quick review of SEC team statistics clearly supports the sense of improvement that Georgia fans were already feeling. In every major defensive measure of defensive prowess except scoring defense, where they are ranked sixth in the SEC and 26th nationally, the Dawgs rank in the top four in the conference. That's refreshing compared to the Dawg defenses of the last few years.
On offense, the Bulldogs rank in the top five in the conference in every significant statistic except rushing offense where they rank seventh.
As Georgia enters into its bye week, with two weeks to rest their bodies and minds and to recover from minor injuries, this signs of progress from last season, the Bulldogs' first losing season since 1996, to a little past the midpoint of this one has be encouraging, and results that demonstrate that their hard work and the program's renewal of its commitment to excellence are paying dividends quickly.
However, if the program's goal is to return to relevance in the conference and, beyond that, to actually bounce back from that dismal season to have a chance to win the SEC East division title, then further examination of the stats reveal some clear areas where the Bulldogs need to use the current two week period before they play again not only to prepare for meeting and beating Florida in Jacksonville, but also to tweak some areas of under-performance that can help them accomplish those goals.
Two clear areas of needed improvement stand out: special teams and offensive efficiency and consistency.
Let's take a look at seven areas where some midseason growth could yield returns in the closing weeks of the current campaign.
Ingram gets body bump after big play against Dawgs.
As the old saying goes, "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me."
Twice this season, Georgia has been caught off guard by fake punts, and twice, it has resulted in scores by the tricksters. Against South Carolina back in Game 2, the Bulldogs were caught napping, and the Gamecocks' upback defensive lineman Melvin Ingram took the snap and rumbled around the left end 68 yards for a TD, juking Georgia cornerback Brandon Boykin and leaving him in a pile en route to the end zone.
Saturday, Vanderbilt caught the Dawgs on their heels again, completing a 35-yard pass out of an unusual punt formation.The 4th down conversion set up a 43-yard halfback pass for a touchdown two plays later.
The Bulldogs have to do a better job of preparing for punt block or punt return while remaining vigilant of the fake. Clearly, opposing special teams coaches have spotted Georgia being lax and perhaps poorly deployed. They have used some double receiver background of late to try to counter the rising popularity of teams utilizing the rugby kick.
Speaking of punt returns, the Bulldogs have not been very threatening when teams have actually punted and caught the Dawgs actually prepared to receive it. Georgia ranks eighth among the 12 SEC teams in punt return yards, averaging a meager 7.63 yards per return. Given that punt returning chores are handled by the fleet tandem of cornerbacks Branden Boykin and Branden Smith, it must be that the Bulldogs' mediocrity in this special teams area must be rooted in either its personnel, its return scheme or its execution.
So for opponents of the Bulldogs, fourth down isn't such a bummer after all.
Drew Butler should be an asset, but is he being offset?
As a sophomore in 2009, Georgia punter Drew Butler led the NCAA in punting with a 48.1 yard per punt, was named the First Team All-SEC and All-American punter and won the coveted Ray Guy Award as the nation's best punter.
After averaging just 44.5 yards per punt last season and only being named Second Team All-American in 2010, Butler has his average back up to 46.1 yards per kick through seven games. That's good, right?
A punter Drew Butler's caliber is an asset that any program would kill to have. Georgia, however, through its shoddy punt coverage, manages to negate Butler's prowess, eliminating the field position advantage that he should give them.
The Bulldogs currently rank 11th in the SEC in net punting. The punt return team had yielded a league high 213 return yards. Though Butler has kicked in two touchbacks to boost the damage to our net, the return yards have made the biggest contribution. On average, when Drew booms one, you can go ahead and advance the ball 10 yards back in the direction of the Bulldogs' goal line. This is not good.
In addition, the Dawgs punt coverage unit surrendered an 81 yard return for a touchdown to Nick Brassell of Ole Miss.
Better punt coverage could really assist the Dawgs in the battle for field position down the stretch. Butler's booming punts are too important an asset for the Bulldogs to squander in a game determined by inches, feet and yards.
Boykin has been kept under wraps so far.
Entering his senior season, Brandon Boykin was considered one of the nation's premier kick returners, ranked No. 4 by Phil Steele. He had four career returns for touchdowns, three of which were 100 yard returns, and had averaged 25.2 yards a return.
Georgia and Boykin currently rank seventh among SEC teams in kick returns. Boykin is averaging a couple of yards under his career median. He has yet to break one for a TD, and his longest has been 56 yards.
While not shoddy by any standards, it is clear that Boykin is a little frustrated. During the open week as the Dawgs prepare for the Gators, tweaking the blocking schemes and execution of the kickoff return team could create some seams for Boykin to break off some big returns in the key upcoming games.
The Dawgs have covered kickoffs adequately throughout most of the season, but suffered a breakdown in coverage against Vanderbilt. A 96-yard return by Vandy's Andre Hall negated a Butler field goal early in the half and got Vandy back in a point where the Dawgs were pulling away.
The Bulldogs can ill afford special teams breakdowns if they are to beat the Florida and Auburn and give themselves a shot at claiming the East crown, and jumpstarting Boykin the kick return unit to get Boykin off more often couldn't hurt toward that end.
Walsh struggles are at one distance range.
By now, it is well chronicled that senior placekicker Blair Walsh is having a sub-par year.
Walsh began the year a career 78 percent field goal kicker. In 2009, Walsh connected on just over 90 percent of his kicks and one of three finalists for the coveted Lou Groza Award, recognizing the best kicker in college football. Last season, Walsh was accurate on 87 percent of his attempts, was First Team All-SEC and was again a Groza nominee.
This year, through seven games, Walsh is just 60 percent from the field, a career low. He has been particularly erratic between 40 and 49 yards, making just two of six attempts. He has been more accurate from beyond the 50-yard line.
While Walsh has been perfect on his PAT attempts on the year, the kicking unit does have a muffed field goal attempt where there was a poor exchange somewhere between snapper Ty Frix and holder Drew Butler.
Bullogs' fans and, for that matter, the Georgia offense have become accustomed, if not spoiled, to expect Walsh to punch through almost anything in enemy territory that the offense is unable to push across the goal line.
Perhaps a week of rest will allow Walsh to rejuvenate, refocus and dial back in a few clicks for the stretch run.
The running game needs to improve.
A successful running attack combines the efforts of the offensive line and other secondary blockers, who execute blocking assignments to create holes and seams, and the ball carriers, who read the blocks and the defensive counters, and then react and create to advance the football as far as possible. While possible on isolated occasions, it is impossible to sustain an effective ground attack without this synergy.
Through seven games, the Bulldogs rank seventh in rushing offense. Bulldog backs average 3.88 yards per carry. By contrast, the league leader, Alabama, averages 6.13 yards per carry.
Over the next two weeks, the Bulldogs rest, recoup and fine tune. The coaching staff needs to find a way to help the infantry average another half yard per game during the last five games of the season. Just another half yard per carry, given that Georgia averages 41 carries per game, would yield another 20 yards per game. In the process, first downs, time of possession and passing situations would all be impacted.
A return to more of the play-calling that we saw against South Carolina would help to loosen up opposing defenses and create opportunities to make these modest increases.
The Dawgs often get lost in the Twilight Zone.
The criticism is a rampant one. Fans throughout the Bulldog nation rage over the number of Bulldog drives that seem to fizzle and end in field goal attempts. Most of the blame is heaped upon the shoulders and play-calling of offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. Let's compare the Dawgs' performance in the red zone to that of other division leading teams.
First, how often are the Dawgs getting there? Georgia has had 26 opportunities inside the scoring area of the gridiron, Alabama and LSU have had 34 and 35 respectively. East competitors South Carolina and Florida are more in line with the Dawgs at 23 and 24 apiece. So within there division, the Dawgs are getting there effectively. However, keep in mind and factor in Georgia's penchant for the big play.
In terms of scoring touchdowns, remembering that we have already focused upon Blair Walsh, the ostensible alternative, Georgia is scoring TDs on 58 percent of their red zone opps. Alabama is close at 60. Florida is much worse at 46 percent. South Carolina and LSU, however, are very efficient at converting red zones possessions into TDs, doing so at a 74 and 80 percent clip respectively.
During the two week prep period for Florida, perhaps the staff can rethink their red zone strategy and options and convert a few more opportunities as they head toward the end of the season.Converting at a clip in the 6os would result in a considerable more potent attack.
Bring the playmakers to bare in the final period.
Since the win over Coastal Carolina, which, in many respects, doesn't count statistically, the fact is that Georgia's offense fizzles and fades in the second half.
Georgia has only scored 17 points in the third quarter over the last four games, all SEC contests. That is, of course, an average of 4.25 points per third quarter,
The Bulldogs have scored but 39 of their 239 points, around 16 percent of their total, in the fourth quarter. Twenty-two of those came against South Carolina in Game 2. Over the last four games, the Bulldogs have scored but 10 fourth quarter points.
Clearly, this dearth could not be the result of the Dawgs going conservative, playing prevent defense to save the win. In each of the four games, the Bulldogs' opponent was still very much alive and within striking distance of comeback victory.
Whether a result of overly circumspect play-calling from up in the booth, poor stamina and conditioning or the utter lack of a killer instinct, Georgia must engineer some plan for putting points on the board when the outcome of the game is still in question. Otherwise, someone soon will mount the zealous comeback that they will not have the wherewithal to stave off.
Making even small progress in each of these areas could yield relatively huge returns in the weeks ahead. Of course, the defense continuing to improve won't do anything but help as well. Getting Alec Ogletree back alone could be a huge boon towards making the Dawgs' D deeper, faster, and nastier. The defense has come so far that if they will simply continue to work and play hard, tackle surely, learn, prepare and, most importantly, stay hungry will probably be sufficient on that side of the ball.
An old adage certainly applies to the Bulldogs during the next two weeks. "If you aren't moving forward, you aren't going anywhere."