How Georgia (almost) did it

Submitted by Ron Utah on January 9th, 2018 at 4:03 PM

No one expected this.  Georgia finished the 2016 season 8-5.  Their offense would end the season ranked 93rd in S&P+, finishing no higher than 80th in any of the six categories.  Their defense was far better -- 34th in S&P+ -- but still a far cry from elite.  How did an 8-5 team that lost to four unranked teams (Ole Miss, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Georgia Tech)--and one bad ranked team (Florida)--catapult themselves into an SEC Championship and, ultimately, the CFP Championship game?  (scroll to bottom for TL;DR summary)

There are several answers to that question, and there had to be.  Perhaps it's easier to start with what did not change: the staff.  Smart brought back a nearly identical staff, only changing his defensive line coach (the one holdover from the Richt staff).

Freshman wunderkind Jacob Eason did not return

Lots of statniks will tell you that a returning QB is crucial to success.  Jacob Eason was said to be one of the keys to Georgia taking a big step forward on offense in 2017.  While has freshman campaign certainly was not a wild success, a 2:1 TD:INT ratio and a 120 rating had Georgia fans and coaches salivating about what he might be able to do in year two.

From DawgNation:

Quarterback Jacob Eason is now entering his second year, which will help. Last year not only was he a freshman, but he was learning a new offense, the pro-style scheme and drop-backs being different from the shotgun and spread-oriented offense he played in high school. That led to the offense being slower than desired last year, partly out of Eason needing to get the call right, and partly the coaches wanting to manage him and those calls. “The training wheels are off this year,” Wims said. “And they’re giving him the ability to make checks. They’re giving him the ability to be a veteran, second-year quarterback.”

This was the "quick fix" the offense needed--an experienced QB.  Some other minor tweaks were discussed in the same article, but this was largely the same offense, and even a lot of the same personnel: Chubb and Michel returned almost all of the rushing production, and five of the six top receivers returned.

And then Jacob Eason got hurt on the third series of the season.

So...same offense, same staff, mostly the same players.  Now with a true freshman QB.  How did it go from #93 to #11 in S&P+?  From 24.5 PPG (#102) to 35.4 PPG (#20) in scoring?  You won't like the answer...

"I remember, in my disappointment, I just don’t think we blocked really well the whole first year at Georgia," Chaney said. "And you say, 'What do you want to change?' People think change is putting a wideout over there and a tight end over here. Hell, I want to block better. I just wanted to block better. I sit here a year later and if you asked me, 'What’s the difference from last year to this year?' We blocked better." "You can’t look at our success and say, 'Oh, Chaney went to the RPO. The dumbass didn’t do it a year ago, now he is,'" Chaney said, drawing laughs. "I wish it were that easy. Sorry, I didn’t mean to ruin your article."

But yeah, let's talk about the RPOs for a moment, because there is more to that than Chaney lets on.  The article rightly focuses on the mentality change and the desire for Georgia to assert themselves on the ground, but it does ignore that the Georgia offense did make a pretty significant change in moving almost entirely to a shotgun offense.

See, Georgia is a "manball" team that tried to hire Dan Enos.  Their offense is predicated on a smashmouth style that grinds down opponents with superior OL and RB play, putting Georgia in a position to control the game and win the 4th quarter.  And in 2017, they were highly successful, posting 3,876 rushing yards along with 42 TDs at a 5.79 YPC clip.  Having guys like Michel and Chubb in your backfield helps, but in 2016 virtually the same guys produced 2,486 yards at 4.66 YPC, and only 18 TDs.

Despite a bad OL in 2016 and losing two starters (sound familiar?), the 2017 OL was dominant, ending the season 12th in adjusted line yards and 9th in opportunity rate.  Those numbers were good enough to weather a 109th ranking in sack rate.

Yes, it turns out that Jake Fromm was far better than anyone could have imagined.  But let's not forget that Eason was the starting QB, suggesting that he won the job.  So perhaps it wasn't Fromm's talent, but his youth, that forced Georgia to change their offense into an offense, that, well, works.

Fromm's arrival meant simplification.  It meant more shotgun, more spread, and even more running.  So while the addition of RPOs was ballyhooed as the "key" change to the offense, the reality was that a simpler version was required in order for Fromm to even operate the unit.  Shotgun sets with more receivers spreads the defense out, making it harder to disguise coverages and blitzes, simplifying reads, footwork, and even hand-offs for the QB.    Georgia is still a power, pro-style offense, but Fromm spent nearly all of his snaps in the pistol or shotgun, and not becuase of a "zone read" or QB run philosophy.  The goal was to run a simple enough offense for a true freshman to make the most of the available talent.

Georgia's passing attack ranked #106 in YPG, but Fromm's 160.09 rating was good for 8th in the country.  Meanwhile--out of shotgun sets running power football--the running game flourished into the #2 rushing attack in the SEC and #7 in rushing S&P+.

Overall, Georgia is one of only four teams to be in the top seven in all six S&P+ categories, demonstrating the ability of their offense to find efficiency in the passing and running game.

Summary and Conclusions

  • Georgia did NOT make offensive staff changes, and still went from a five-loss, incompetent offense to one of the best in college football
  • Georgia did NOT change offensive philosophy--they are still a pro-style outfit focused on a power running game.
  • Georgia did NOT change much of their skill position personnel.
  • Georgia had a true freshman QB and two new OL.
  • Georgia did change to a more simplified, shotgun-oriented offense, increasing their efficiency in both the running and passing game.
  • The biggest difference in the success of the offense was improvement and emphasis in blocking.

Simplification, a clear identity, and repetition of base concepts...sounds like a recipe for a successful college offense, and maybe, just maybe, Michigan can make a Georgia-like leap next season.

Comments

Ezeh-E

January 9th, 2018 at 4:10 PM ^

I also remember UGAs starting line-up this year was pretty much all JR/SR besides Mecole Hardiman, two linemen, Fromm, and one of the DL. They had senior talent. Interesting to see how they do next year.

goblue4321

January 9th, 2018 at 5:47 PM ^

runs simple quick read pass plays and actually be creative and maybe on 3rd and 5 not run 4 WR's on flys they could be good, talent is not the problem, offensive play calling was the problem

ScooterTooter

January 9th, 2018 at 6:17 PM ^

Wait you're saying that highly-ranked young players get better as time goes on? 

Preposterous! Everyone knows that players are exactly who they are when they arrive and have no chance of improving! 

ChiBlueBoy

January 9th, 2018 at 7:17 PM ^

One can make a strong argument, and OP has made it before, that the key is to run a relatively simple offense and through repetition become unstoppable. I think an equally good argument can be made, however, that if an offense runs the same handful of plays repeatedly, a solid defense will eventually figure it out and stop it. I think the game last night showed this, and I don't think any team could, for example, sucessfully run a limited number of plays against a Don Brown-coached defense and have sustained luck. On the other hand, an overly complex offense, particularly with younger players, will have major problems (and we may have seen that this year).

I think, however, that there is a way to leverage this and avoid the either/or here.

1) Have a relatively few number of types of plays, but disguise them with various formations and wrinkles. So there may seem to be (to pull a random number) 50 available plays, but in reality it could be 10 plays run out of 5 different formations each. Any one player only needs to learn 10 and then execute the same job but in different places on the field or in different combinations.

2) Have a system that is relatively rare (e.g., triple-option; wishbone) so that other teams have less time and ability to download all that the team does (see, Service Academies).

To my rudimentary understanding, I believe that JH has done both 1) and 2) (given how much the spread has overtaken CFB), and is trying to leverage the relative complexity. In addition, I think he has tried to start with a limited playbook when the offense is relatively young, or new to his system, but broadened it for certain players as they mature and learn it more fully.

 

Ron Utah

January 10th, 2018 at 12:45 AM ^

Appreciate your reasoned insight. There are a couple of holes there, though. 1) PSU runs a very simple offense and they throttled the Don Brown defense. 2) Georgia’s offense did about as well as you can do against ‘Bama, despite having a true freshman QB. 3) Harbaugh’s system is not a small number of plays. Look back at this season and see the number of different plays—not just formations, but plays—that we ran.

Georgia also had a complex playbook. They still have a complex playbook relative to OSU or PSU. And simplification cannot be identified as the ultimate reason for their success. Blocking really is the difference. But why was their blocking so much better? What can we try to copy to make massive improvement next season? We won’t have the same staff consistency, and probably shouldn’t. Would like to see us try to simplify a bit and see where it goes.

Tex_Ind_Blue

January 10th, 2018 at 11:00 AM ^

That's the part I don't understand. Most of the OL recruits are on campus for at least one season. The coaches should know how much can they learn, what can they do. So shouldn't the scheme/training be tailored to develop them within those parameters? 

Now, assuming they did AND the OL still didn't develop the skills needed, how would one solve that? 

OTOH, if we assume that the coaches didn't tailor the training knowing the player limitation, why is that? 

I don't have any idea how the things are done in football training. I am just trying to project what we do in our industry or what one would do while solving a problem. 

Unfortunately, when the play doesn't show the expected improvement, it boggles/frustates no end. 

Ron Utah

January 10th, 2018 at 1:59 PM ^

You've hit the million dollar question: Are the coaches overloading the players (scheme problem), failing to develop the players (development problem), or are the players just not capable (recruiting problem)?

It seems implausible that this can be attributed to recruiting, since we have plenty of "star" power in our OL recruits, and, even if we did not, other OLs with far less talent are out-performing ours.  So...is it scheme or development?  I think those two go hand-in-hand.  Giving a player a scheme that enables development while being robust enough to keep a defense on its toes is no easy task.  This coaching stuff is hard, and that's why there aren't 20 Nick Sabans out there.

ChiBlueBoy

January 10th, 2018 at 4:25 PM ^

I haven't looked at star ratings vs. success for OL, but my sense is that OL take longer to develop and success is harder to predict for OL than some other positions. We've certainly seen our share of low-rated OL turn out serviceable and better and some 5 stars have middling success. We've also barely missed out on bringing in some major talent. Not to mention the failure to bring in enough bodies on the line in JH's first recruiting class.

My guess is that it's a mix of recruiting misses, bad luck (e.g., injury), lack of development (perhaps Drevno was too distracted being OC along with handling OL?) and too much of a mixed bag of power vs. zone blocking. I can't believe that the brain trust that created Stanford's OL can't develop players here, however.

 

jdemille9

January 11th, 2018 at 10:14 AM ^

OL do tend to take longer to develop, in general. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, as there are to any rule. From what I've seen and heard from knowledgable former players it is around year 3 before an OL is where they need to be (RS Soph/Junior). 

Sadly, the 2013/14 classes and Harbaugh's abbreviated first class due to the timing of his hiring has left us with little OL depth. But the guys he's brought in the last two classes should form the foundation for another Stanford-esque OL in the years to come. 

I've posted this before and it's not a big secret either, but the major key in Stanford's rise under Harbaugh was a mauling OL. OL is a very cerebral position where you need super nerds, and that is all of Stanford's student body. Now, of course, Michigan is also an elite academic institution but it is no secret that Stanford's academic admission standards are on another level. So I attribute part of the OL issues to lack of depth leftover and the extreme youth we currently have. Not all kids can grasp all these concepts quickly.. and by numerous accounts and Harbaugh himself we know that his system is particularly taxing on the OL. 

As you said, this is the brain trust (more or less) that created Stanford's OL, and system, and once the foundation was built, well we can see what they've done since Harbaugh got their flywheel spinning (10-3 on avg since 2010). 

Regardless, something needs to change at least a little bit and with the staff changes it seems to clear to me that Harbaugh is indeed addressing it. Let's not also forget that basically this same staff ran an offense that averaged 40ppg in 2016 with a bunch of Hoke leftovers at OL that most would say weren't all that great. 

2017 was disappointing for sure, but for me it's likely just a blip year and we'll look back on this and laugh that so many were being Chicken Little. 

likerice

January 9th, 2018 at 8:10 PM ^

Worth noting that although Fromm is a freshman, he was a big-time QB recruit (5 stars from multiple recruiting services, U.S. Army All-American, etc.).

 

Another possible explanation for the jump in Kirby Smart's second year is improved coaching all-around relative to Smart's predecessor (Mark Richt). I was under the impression that Georgia continually underperformed under Richt, under whom they had many 9-win seasons but ultimately left fans frustrated as a breakout season eluded him.

Der Alte

January 11th, 2018 at 9:58 AM ^

Fromm was an Alabama commit. Inexplicably, Mark Richt never offered him. When Kirby Smart arrived in Athens, one of his early moves was to contact Fromm and offer him a scholarship. Fromm is a native Georgian, from Warner Robbins in the southeastern part of the state. He always wanted to play football for the Bulldogs. After Kirby's offer, he called Nick Saban and decommited. The rest, as they say, is history. 

rice4114

January 10th, 2018 at 2:01 AM ^

because this was a great read. My only problem is..

 

Uconn/Akron seasoned Qb with Hoke

looked a lot like

Cincy/Air Force seasoned Qb with Harbaugh

2 seasons in the system with Peters + 13 games for all the new players and it looked liked more of the same on offense. Will a few offseason practices and some training do what the 13 games couldnt? Our play calling looked the coaches had the under for $1million. As if the goal was good punting position.

That scares the beejesus out of me.

EGD

January 10th, 2018 at 5:48 AM ^

I think 2016 Michigan could have done what 2017 Georgia did, had a few more bounces gone the right way. But Georgia did have a hell of a lot more offensive talent than M had to work with.

1VaBlue1

January 10th, 2018 at 9:37 AM ^

Nice write up, but I don't think enough credit was given to the returning starters UGA brought back (or just returning playing experience, if not starters) and the improvement in blocking.  Michigan simplified the blocking schemes and suddenly began opening up yards-wide holes.  But they couldn't take advantage of that for the passing game because of various reasons: 

    1) Virtually no returning experience with the WRs and TEs

    2) No returning experience for RBs catching the ball out of the backfield

    3) Injuries to the new WRs

    4) Inexperienced OL (incl those that never found the field before)

    5) QB injury (Speight), incompetence (JOK), 3rd string (Peters)  (Seriously, Peters was 3rd string behind JOK for a reason  - he lost out in that competition!)

Georgia returned more experience on thier offense this season than Michigan will return for 2018.  They already had competent running games, OL, and WRs.  Michigan will (again) have a fairly new OL and very young WRs.  That said, I expect a fair amount of improvement frmo both, and also from the QB position.  The interior OL will be some flavor of Bredeson (3-yr starter), Ruiz, Onwenu, and Spanellis.  I just can't see anything wrong with those guys.  The OTs will be new, but I expect them to be better at RT and hold court at LT.  (Yeah, I know Cole...  But he was a center, and I think a 'real' tackle body can perform well enough that we won't notice the drop-off most of the time.)

The WRs will still be a little raw, but I think DPJ and Black will make quantum leaps.  I also see McDoom getting more involved (don't ask why, I don't know and can't explain).  The QB situation will be better simply because of talent.  Patterson we all know.  McCaffrey was the #1 QB for most of the cycle, until he just stopped going to camps after he committed.  Peters has the experience of the group and shouldn't be a slouch.  And we're due for improvement, there!

I like our chances in 2018, but I don't think the offense will be as good as Georgia's was this year.  Just not enough returning experience...

Mongo

January 10th, 2018 at 2:02 PM ^

with 2019 setting up to be more like Georgia 2017.  I think fans need to emotionally get ready for another year of development during 2018 especially at OL which will be frustrating but understandable given the youth.  The 2019 OL should be stocked with experienced big bodies to make a run with Shea at QB, Evans at RB, Mason at FB, McKeon / Gentry at TE and a seasoned WR core of Black/DPJ/Collins/Martin.  It seems like 2019 is the year we have the player development and schedule to win the B1G and make the playoffs. 

2018 is hard to call given the wild cards - new QB (Shea), new coaches, young OL.  I am most intrigued to see Herbert's impact on the OL becoming more physical during 2018 - both in terms of raw strength and bad-ass attitude.

Ron Utah

January 10th, 2018 at 2:09 PM ^

Perhaps I should have emphasised it more, but the improvement in blocking, as noted in the OP, was the most important factor in the offense's breakout.  Returning six starters on offense is a big deal, too.  We will be returning about that number, albeit with less production that Georgia.

But Michigan brings back its top two rushers, its top eight receivers, a third-year QB (and a third-year transfer), and three OL starters.  Quality coaching and scheme should absolutely produce a breakout year for the offense, even if it's not as good as Georgia's was.  Don't forget that Georgia's starting QB was a true freshman.

If the scheme and development enable our OL, we have plenty of talent at the skill positions to be a top three offense in the B1G in S&P+.

Ziff72

January 10th, 2018 at 2:38 PM ^

Despite all the evidence available to see hope for the next few years people have gone off the rails.

Returning starters?   Check

Recruiting rankings?  Check

A hard to believe QB disaster last year has everyone reeling.   We will be good on offense next year.  

brad

January 10th, 2018 at 6:54 PM ^

This is interesting because Michigan's offense switched to "On" only twice this season. Both times the qb went out and the backup came in, the offense roared to life on a simplified playbook. Then, the coaches got their hands on the new guy and dumped everything on him, which caused the pocket paralysis we saw in all the other games.