Mike Anthony

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More Cinderellas

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The first month of the NCAA basketball season has been wild as it pertains to the national polls.

For the first time ever, two No. 1 teams have lost home games to unranked opponents in the same season.

Four different teams claimed the top national ranking within the first five releasings of the national poll and the annual rush of marquee tournaments and made-for-TV matchups have delivered a handful of top-10 matchups already.

Without a doubt, the early weeks of the 2019-20 season have been filled with fireworks.

It’s just too bad that none of it will matter much over the next few months.

With nearly three times as many teams competing for the Division I basketball title than the FBS football championship, it stands to reason that more teams are involved in the final tournament. And over the last few decades, ‘March Madness’ has become a billion-dollar moneymaker for the NCAA.

But for all the buzzer-beaters and Cinderella stories that emerge each spring, the fact remains that the deck is stacked against the little guys of basketball as much as with any other sport overseen by the NCAA.

All 32 Division I conferences own an automatic bid to the tournament, but 21 of those leagues received just that one guaranteed bid, with two of the conference champion auto-bid recipients placed in the tournament’s play-in round.

The perennially dominant leagues like the ACC, Big Ten, SEC and Big 12 routinely end up cutting down the nets. And no one can argue that the top teams from any of those conferences should be thought of as top seeds and favorites in any given tournament.

But for the sake of parity and fair play, those conferences really need to stop sucking up all the air in the bracket.

While some conferences are admittedly weaker and should only get one bid into the national tournament, that number of conferences certainly doesn’t comprise two-thirds of the national landscape.

Far too often, the tournament selection committee gets it in its head that a certain conference will only get one team into the bracket and is then left scrambling for reasons to justify snubbing a dominant team with 25-plus wins that just happened to fall short during its conference tournament on the way to an auto-bid.

The plight of smaller conferences won’t find much sympathy outside of leagues with similar problems, but the growing gap between the haves and have-nots is hurting the game itself.

For every extra at-large bid a power conference vacuums up in March, the sport as a whole becomes less relevant during the regular season.

Sure, bid scarcity will fuel some incredible regular season and tournament games in smaller conferences, but for every intense game with huge repercussions in small conferences, there will be a dozen more regular season meetings between middling power conference teams that routinely sleepwalk through some games with the assumption that even a modest record will be enough.

That’s not what the NCAA tournament should be about.

Each season, the NCAA churns out dozens of highlight reels, making sure to emphasize the little guys and tout ever punch a David can deal out to a Goliath. The NCAA and its tournament would do even better by all parties involved to include a few more of those long shots.

No one remembers the 8-9 game between two power conference also-rans. Meanwhile, the upsets and names involved with them are talked about decades after the fact.

The same elite group of programs are likely to contend for – and win – the title each season. But there’s no reason not to ensure that every good team gets a fair chance at tournament glory.

Broken System

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The latest College Football Playoff rankings are out and – just as all of these releases are, up until the final one – it’s just a song and dance meant to drive argument and interest in the race for the four spots in the championship postseason.

It really doesn’t matter that Ohio State is ahead of LSU. The Tigers could very well pull ahead with a win, in what will be perceived as a tougher matchup in its conference championship game.

It really doesn’t matter that Georgia is fourth while Alabama is fifth. A win for the Bulldogs in the SEC title game will guarantee them a spot – and a higher seed – in the playoff, while Alabama knows all about sitting out of a conference championship game and moving up by default.

It really doesn’t matter that Clemson has pinballed around the rankings so far. They’re the defending national champions and they’ll be in the playoff so long as they remain undefeated.

In the end, everything seems to be on a crash course for yet another round of bashing the selection committee for including one team while leaving out another. And when you look at the big picture, the NCAA has brought a lot of that scorn upon itself.

Of the 10 conferences in FBS football, there is a split between the ‘Power 5’ and the ‘Group of 5’. Those names weren’t originally created by the NCAA, but the association acknowledged the split several years ago when it set special stipulations to mandate that at least one G5 team is represented in the six major New Year’s bowls.

But, by doing that, the NCAA has stepped in an even bigger puddle. There is now a de facto admission that five conferences are seen as superior and will get preference in rankings and bowl allotments.

That much isn’t so bad as the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12 and SEC consistently put forth the best teams in the country. But the problem arises when elementary math takes over and there are five power conference champions and only four playoff spots.

It’s as if a ship named five officers and only provided four lifejackets to go between them. Regardless of anyone else on board who is deserving of a vest, it’s impossible for anything other than a power struggle to result.

There have been plenty of years in which a P5 conference hasn’t produced a national championship-caliber team. And there have been years where one P5 conference has objectively had two of the best four teams in the nation that both deserve to play on.

Of course, there are also about a half-dozen instances dating back to the BCS days where a G5 team went undefeated and wasn’t even allowed the ability to keep playing toward a national championship before being dismissed and cast aside while P5 schools battled it out.

With P5 conference members given more of a benefit of the doubt for losses and those same teams mostly controlling who and when and where they play any non-conference game, it’s almost guaranteed that every season will end with a couple of shoe-in playoff teams, along with about a half-dozen other P5s with solid cases to make and a few G5s who can’t get the time of day due to their PERCEIVED lack of schedule strength.

It’s past time for the playoff to expand. If the P5 schools are so far above the rest, then each of the conference champions should have a chance to play for a title. And when great G5 teams get bashed for their schedule, it should be taken with a grain of salt since obviously no P5 squad wanted to bring them in for a perceived easy win.

There are too many teams and not enough weeks to work out a perfect regular season that produces a unanimously agreed upon playoff field. So, it’s up to the powers that be to come up with something that isn’t designed to ensure plenty of legitimate contenders left on the sidelines each fall.

The Inflated SEC

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

On Tuesday night, the latest installment of the College Football Playoff rankings were released.

There weren’t too many surprises. LSU topped the chart after an historic win over Alabama. Ohio State continues to churn along and the defending champions from Clemson won’t drop out of a coveted top-4 so long as they remain undefeated.

The only small surprise was that Alabama fell all the way out of the top-4, coming in at No. 5 while Georgia claimed the final spot – for now – in the ultimate playoff.

There is still a month to play in the regular season and history suggests that a big shakeup or two are still in store, but the latest rankings continued a long-running trend.

For more than a decade it has been pretty much impossible for Southeastern Conference teams to not make up a large portion of any poll.

To be fair, there is no reason to be surprised by seeing SEC teams ranked near the top. The conference won seven consecutive national championships from 2006-12 and has won two more since then. A team from the SEC was also the runner-up in three other title games since 2012.

It’s inarguable that the SEC routinely produces some of the best teams each year. But a quick look at how the rankings – both the playoff rankings and the Associated Press poll – play out each week shows why the league is all but guaranteed to get a crack at the title, even in down years.

The fact that the thousands of bowl game fans doing the ‘S-E-C’ chant don’t want to admit is that, for all the greatness of the top few teams each season, the bottom of the league features bad teams the likes of which can be found in any other conference. But the real issue with the SEC and the rankings comes from the 4-5 teams in the middle of the conference standings.

Year in and year out, ranked SEC teams that suffer tough losses never seem to suffer the same sort of hit in the polls as similar middling teams from other leagues.

As an example, from the most recent playoff rankings, Florida and Auburn are the two highest ranked two-loss teams and both come in ahead of undefeated P5 school Baylor, as well as five other teams with just one loss.

The constant argument is that the SEC is just so much better that its teams play exponentially tougher schedules and deserve the benefit of a doubt.

That’s simply not true in practice. Alabama has yet to beat a ranked team this season and only has one left on its schedule.

Auburn has only beaten one ranked team this season in Oregon. Florida’s only win over a ranked team came when it beat Auburn.

That’s the vicious circle which continues to play out in the SEC’s favor. Anytime a favorite wins, like it should against a league doormat, it gets extra credit for winning an SEC game.

When a favorite loses, the blow in the rankings is softened for the same reason. And anytime an otherwise unimpressive SEC team jumps up to beat a league rival, the voters overreact and race to throw that team right into a top-20 spot.

And that’s how the league continues to take up nearly a third of each new poll despite not being nearly the dominant force it was a decade ago.

The top few teams in the SEC are great and have a legitimate shot at a national championship each season. But all of their lesser friends need to stop sucking up all the air in the rankings that could be used on better teams from other conferences.

The Other Rivalry

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

On Saturday, Georgia and Florida will throw their little cocktail party.

Texas and Oklahoma put on a good show a couple of weeks ago and Auburn and Alabama figure to have another slugfest at the end of November.

There are plenty of rivalries between Power-5 schools that get a lot of press, but – when it comes to the mix of mutual hatred and respect that defines so many great college football rivalries – you can’t do much better than taking in a game between Georgia Southern and Appalachian State.

Thursday’s matchup will have plenty of storylines as far as the 2019 season goes.

Appalachian State is ranked 20th in the country – although a ranking didn’t do the Mountaineers much good against the Eagles last season.

App is looking for a third straight Sun Belt title while the Eagles are riding a three-game winning streak and could take control of the Sun Belt East race with a win up in Boone.

But for everything that can be gained by either side with a win this week, the rivalry is about so much more than just one matchup in any given season.

It’s about the first playoff loss in Georgia Southern history and the only time Erk Russell’s Eagles were ever shut out.

It’s about the Mountaineers having nearly a dozen fewer conference championships in their trophy case once Georgia Southern decided to crash their party in the Southern Conference.

It’s about Appalachian State mostly not caring about losing a home game in 2001, so long as it kept Adrian Peterson from gaining 100 rushing yards.

It’s about Mountaineer fans wrecking a Georgia Southern team before wrecking its bus and postgame spread.

It’s about the Eagles winning by 47 points against a ranked App State team the season after that.

It’s about the Mountaineers gaining the upper hand in nationwide competition and winning three consecutive championships after the Eagles had gone back-to-back twice.

It’s about Armanti Edwards supposedly breaking the goal line to stave off an upset.

It’s about the Eagles putting a black mark on ‘Black Saturday’, ending a lengthy home winning streak for App while the Mountaineers were still basking in the adulation of a win over Michigan.

It’s about Appalachian State keeping its foot on the gas until 712 yards had been racked up.

It’s about a top-ranked App team jumping out to a 14-0 lead at Paulson and then never scoring again.

It’s about how App’s Brian Quick has still never fully gained possession of a touchdown pass that won the 2011 game.

It’s about an FBS atmosphere and a sea of cardboard cut-out Eagle head logos overwhelming the Mountaineers in 2014.

Most recently, it’s about Georgia Southern watching it’s fiercest rival attain an FBS ranking for the first time, then throwing that ranking in the trash four days later.

When Thursday rolls around, it’s going to be all about who can gain control of this season’s race for a Sun Belt title.

But it’s about a lot more than that…

A Fans View

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

In these parts, the end of October can mean only one thing – another chapter written in the rivalry between Georgia and Florida.

To be perfectly honest, I have no stake in this matchup.

I spent the first 14 years of my life embroiled in the various college football rivalries of the Mid-Atlantic and Rust Belt states.

And while I’ve enjoyed all of the ACC and SEC rivalries since moving down south, I’ve never taken a side and simply appreciate each game as it comes while not digging too deep into the history.

So, I consider myself unfit to discuss the ins and outs of Georgia and Florida. Luckily, I’m never short of friends with deep roots in various teams throughout the south.

With the latest edition of Florida/Georgia on tap, I turned to Sudie Pennebaker (a huge Florida fan from the Sunshine State) and Morrell McCaskill (a lifelong Georgia fan) to try and sway me to their side.

Here’s a few pieces of the argument that ensued.

Me: So, let’s jump right into it. Where do we stand in this rivalry? Who’s getting the best of it?

MM: First off, UGA not only won the first ever game in this rivalry, but it still holds the largest victory in the series and is ahead in the overall record with 52 wins. Florida is more like a bitter little brother in the series. Outside of the Spurrier era, UGA has owned the rivalry.

SP: Eh… 51 wins. Georgia says 52 because they count a game when they played a school that wasn’t actually UF. And Spurrier left in 2001. We’ve won 10 times since then. Not sure how you can say Georgia has owned the rivalry when they only have seven wins in that span.

Me: The game has the moniker of “The World’s Largest Cocktail Party”, but that name has been shuttered recently. How devastating is it to lose such a great nickname.

MM: I think it’s a buzzkill. The cocktail party name lends to the two schools’ strong tailgating traditions. It also bleeds into the crowd that isn’t so into football, but loves a good party. That does nothing but help college football’s cause.

Me: How about the neutral site? Would the game be even better if it was a home-and-home?

SP: On one hand, I like Jacksonville because A.) Family is close by, B.) Go Jags and C.) It feels like a home game. But I don’t think it’s really a neutral site.

MM: Neutral? 71 miles vs. 362 miles doesn’t seem too neutral to me. I would love if it was home-and-home. Georgia does that with Auburn every year and that works great. Florida fans may be worried about wearing their jean shorts in late October in Athens though. It could be chillier than what they’re used to.

SP: Nah. We’ll just wear the jeans that we will turn into shorts next summer.

Me: You obviously have all the great moments for your team committed to memory. What’s a low point for you?

SP: I am not fond of 2012… Stupid Jeff Driskel. Stupid Will Muschamp. (editor’s note – at this point, Sudie wandered off topic and spent the next five minutes lamenting the Muschamp era)

MM: 2012 was a great year. The one I hate was 2014. We had just beaten Missouri 34-0. Florida wasn’t even ranked. We got beat handily and that was shocking. Plus, it basically sealed the SEC East for Missouri.

In the end, we all ended up right where we had started. There will never be any love lost in this rivalry and – as is often the case – this year’s matchup is heightened by the fact that the winner will be in position to claim the East and play for the conference championship.

I’ll probably remain on the fence when it comes to picking sides. Our discussion cast some light on the pride and pain each side has experienced, but I get enough of that from the allegiances I already claim.

No matter who you root for, it’s going to be one heck of a party – cocktails or not.

Looking To Fly

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

With less than two weeks to go before tipoff of the 2019-20 season, the Georgia Southern men’s basketball team is already in high gear.

The Eagles have proven to be a consistent winner in the Sun Belt Conference, but have yet to attain the ultimate goal of winning the conference tournament and advancing to the school’s first NCAA tournament since 1992.

All of the pieces seem to be in place for the Eagles to take another crack at things as nearly every preseason poll has them pegged as a favorite to be one of the top two seeds.

But the Sun Belt’s NCAA bid won’t be awarded for another five months, and there is a lot of work to be done by Georgia Southern until then if it wants to be the team left standing in March.

“I think that all our guys know that preseason hype means absolutely nothing,” GS coach Mark Byington said. “The goals are bigger than what projections are in October. We’re trying to climb the mountain and everyone is starting at the bottom.”

As preseason practices have started, one trend has clearly emerged. The Eagles are looking for a better defensive showing this time around.

Byington stated that most of his practices lean heavily on shutting down the opposition.

“We’re really getting after it on the defensive end,” guard David Lee Jones Junior said.

“We need to focus on it,” guard Calvin Wishart said. “It’s 30 seconds where we have to be locked in. If we do that, we know we have the talent to score on the other end.”

The players’ assessments of what they’re being coached up on definitely aligns with what Byington is trying to impress upon them.

“We had success last season in getting a lot of steals,” Byington said. “When we were in our half-court defense, we weren’t as good. We know that we have a lot of very talented offensive players. We need to improve defensively and then we trust that the scoring will be there for us.”

While many players will be returning to the court this season, there’s no missing the fact that Georgia Southern’s modern-day leading scorer Tookie Brown has graduated.

There’s likely not a single player that will be able to match Brown’s numbers as a four-time All-Sun Belt performer, but the Eagles project to be as tall and athletic as ever with plenty of bench depth to spare.

But that talent needs an identity and a culture – things that can be damaged when a star and leader like Brown move on.

Luckily, Georgia Southern was able to build up some of that in style. The Eagles travelled to Spain over the summer break, playing some local squads and doing some sightseeing while spending a week overseas.

“I think it was a great experience for them, and important for us that we all experienced it together,” Byington said. “It accomplished what I wanted it to. Seeing different ways to live and different ways to do things, it exposed us to a lot. Doing it together can show our strengths and weaknesses as a group and that’s what we use to grow on.”

Georgia Southern will play a pair of exhibition games in the coming weeks before tipping off its regular season Nov. 5 at Auburn.

Growing Wings

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Georgia Southern has a storied history of championship-caliber football teams. And while those types of teams usually need to be well-rounded in order to achieve status, it’s been a tradition at Georgia Southern to throw its belief and support of each season’s team in the direction that the offense has gone.

That trend isn’t without reason. Georgia Southern has built one of the strongest and most consistent offensive identities in all of college football as a team that will run an option attack right at opponents and keep running it – win or lose – until it gets results.

So, it’s a bit ironic that Georgia Southern will open up its Sun Belt Conference schedule on Saturday against a Louisiana squad that will be trying to spread the Eagles’ bread and butter onto the Paulson Stadium turf.

Sure, the Ragin’ Cajuns don’t run the triple option, but their seemingly never-ending stable of capable ball carriers have been putting up numbers over the first four weeks of play that rival some of Georgia Southern’s best showings.

Louisiana is rushing for over 300 yards per game and is currently a top-5 rushing team in the nation and leads the entire FBS with 18 rushing touchdowns over its first four games.

And the truth is, the Georgia Southern offense can’t expect to win on Saturday by beating Louisiana at its own game.

Injury questions and ongoing suspensions will continue to limit the maximum effectiveness of the Eagles’ ground game. And even with substitutes playing capably, penalties have continually killed big plays and taken points off the board for Georgia Southern further lessen the effectiveness of its offense.

While every Eagle fan – as well as the players and coaches – hope that Saturday will be a breakout game for the offense, it’s the Georgia Southern defense that could be key to notching a win and getting the Sun Belt season off to a good start.

There’s no question that stopping the ULL run game will be a challenge, but it’s also been proven that the GS defense isn’t one to give up rushing yards easily.

While each of the Eagles’ first three opponents preferred to move the ball through the air, play by the Eagles’ front seven made that their only way to consistently pick up yardage.

Georgia Southern went a long way towards getting itself back on the right track with last season’s 10-3 mark and bowl victory. But one of the common sound bytes coming out of the locker room throughout the offseason was that the team was more focused on how it finished third in its division and lost a pair of games that would have put it in position to win a Sun Belt title.

So, perhaps, it’s fitting that Saturday’s matchup will face a balance of power on opposing sides of the ball that is in stark contrast to what fans are used to seeing at Paulson Stadium.

For everything that has been gained back by the Eagles over the last 13 months, this is still an Eagle team that sits at 1-2, is expected to be a Sun Belt contender, and is an underdog that is expected to get out-rushed in its own house against a conference rival in a few days.

Maybe the GS defense will rise to the occasion and cage up the Cajuns. Maybe the offense will awake and prove that it is still a gold standard for rushing attacks. Hopefully both will happen at the same time.

But regardless of how things eventually play out, the current state of affairs holds true.

Georgia Southern is a team with a lot of promise on both sides of the ball that hasn’t shown its best in either aspect so far.

If the Eagles want to be the Sun Belt contenders they believe themselves to be, both of those units need to start living up to their potential sooner rather than later.

New Chomp For Gators?

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Every college football team enters a season with a plan.

Whether the plan is to contend for a national championship or merely try to make a bowl game, every team has a list of things that need to go right in order to end the season where it expects.

And without exception, a starting quarterback in a leg cast is a huge detriment to any team’s season goals, regardless of how bold or conservative they may have been.

That’s exactly where the Florida Gators now stand. The Gators opened the year with plenty of promise as veteran quarterback Feleipe Franks seemed to have Florida moving in the right direction, but Franks suffered a bad ankle injury in the fourth quarter of the Gators’ victory over Kentucky in one of the first SEC games of the season.

It’s easy to cite the ‘Next Man Up’ philosophy following any injury for a collegiate football team, but Florida has a ton riding on what happens next with Franks out of the picture.

Thrust into the spotlight is redshirt junior Kyle Trask. And – in true Hollywood form – Trask immediately set about pulling the Gators out of the fire.

Florida trailed 24-10 when Franks went down, but Trask ignited the offense, engineering drives that racked up 19 unanswered points that allowed the Gators to escape Lexington with a victory, if not their health.

Trask was able to deal with the immediate problem of replacing Franks on the fly and mounting a comeback, but now sees Florida pondering how it can achieve its goals with Franks done for the season.

For the time being, things should be just fine. Trask proved that he’s capable of commanding the offense. The Gators’ schedule also helps out as Florida hosts Tennessee – which is off to a nightmarish start – this week before taking on Towson out of the FCS next week.

Following that, the real tests begin.

Florida will face Auburn, LSU and Georgia in a four-game stretch that will cover all of October. That would have been a tall order even with the entire depth chart intact, but now the Gators have the task of navigating that top-10 minefield with a backup quarterback.

If nothing else, Trask is at least the same imposing physical figure that Franks was. Standing 6-foot-5 and weighing 235 pounds, Trask looked poised in hitting on 9-of-13 passing and bowling in for a rushing touchdown against Kentucky.

Replacing Franks’ big arm might not be possible, but there’s a chance that the injury might force the Gators into a more consistent attack, which is what their fans have been hoping for all along. The playbook will be limited in the coming weeks, but that could be a blessing in disguise.

Most agree that the Gators have top-10 talent all over the field, but that hasn’t shown on the offensive side of the ball in big games.

It may have taken a bad break – literally – but Franks’ injury could unwittingly force Florida into a new offensive direction that keeps them near the top of the rankings and allows them to remain as the only real threat to Georgia in the SEC East.

Wounded Eagles

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Nothing ever goes exactly as planned in football, especially on offense.

To look at a play as it’s drawn up, every run appears to have enough blockers to spring the ball carrier.

Similarly, every pass seems to have plenty of protection and the perfect combination of routes that should lead to a receiver breaking into open space for the quarterback.

Yet, a quick look at even a few plays of any game show that the efforts to move the ball more often resemble a well thought-out plan that tries to hold together as long as possible before dissolving into chaos.

To be sure, the Georgia Southern offense isn’t flailing or in disarray after two games, the current state of the unit isn’t what was hoped for back in the summer.

A lot of that can be chalked up more to who isn’t playing than negative things being done by those who are on the field.

Starting quarterback Shai Werts was knocked out in the first half of the LSU game and remains doubtful to return this week after being held out against Maine.

Slotback Wesley Kennedy III has yet to play a down as he serves out an academic suspension.

Linemen Drew Wilson and Jarod Leeds missed time in preseason camp with concussions while starting tackle Brian Miller was lost for the season with an injury suffered two weeks before kickoff.

And in one final easy-to-see blemish, the second half of Saturday’s game featured a host of wayward snaps that came after starting center Jakob Cooper left with an injury.

For the most part, the scariest injury situation seemed to work out the best for concerned Eagle fans against Maine.

Werts will be welcomed back when he is healthy, but backup quarterback Justin Tomlin looked confident and ran hard on his way to 195 yards of total offense and a touchdown.

But Tomlin also had some sore spots as he contributed to the Eagles’ seven fumbles and seemed less sure of running the option when going to his left.

Cooper appears to be on track to return to the middle of the offensive line this week at Minnesota, but Saturday raised a red flag for Georgia Southern if the need to replace him pops up again. Spring practice featured a constant cycle of potential centers, with all having their trouble with inconsistent snaps.

Aaron Dowdell was called upon against Maine. His efforts keeping Tomlin guessing, ultimately highlighted (or lowlighted?) with a high snap that sent Tomlin scrambling 15 yards backwards and stalled what could have been a game-clinching touchdown in the second half.

As for the rest of the skill position players, the health is good, but the consistency hasn’t shown up quite yet.

Matt LaRoche had a career day with 154 rushing yards and a touchdown on Saturday while Logan Wright went for 114. But J.D. King was held to 16 yards on 12 carries aside from his one rush of 25 and the game plan didn’t appear to be comfortable showcasing any slotback in the manner that would be expected if Kennedy was on the field.

The yo-yoing nature of the Eagles’ early opponents continues this week as Georgia Southern travels to Minnesota.

Another long road trip against a P5 school it is facing for the first time might make it hard to make evaluations of the offense any clearer after this weekend, but the fact remains that continued explosiveness and more overall consistency is needed for the Eagles to end up where they want to be.

 

New Tricks Against Bama?

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Could UGA be shut out of playoff again?

Without a doubt, the University of Georgia is in its golden age. The Bulldogs, seem to have found a generational coach in Kirby Smart, have been dominating the recruiting wars and enter 2019 as – once again – a serious contender for a national championship.

…So when is that oft-presumed second national title of the modern area finally going to arrive in Athens? Because unless the Bulldogs can solve their Alabama problem, this year isn’t going to be it.

Georgia was a powerhouse in 2018. The Bulldogs ran roughshod over everyone in their path during the regular season last fall – save for a hiccup at LSU – and looked to be objectively better than even Alabama in the SEC championship game before the wheels fell off and the Tide rolled to a thrilling comeback victory.

That seemed to be insult added to injury as just 11 months before the Bulldogs had dominated Alabama for one half of the national championship game and was just one defensive stand away from an overtime victory before seeing everything go up in smoke in the form of Tua Tagovailoa hitting DeVonta Smith for a title-winning touchdown.

Last season’s conference title game loss served as a flashpoint for the playoff selection committee to pass along a judgement that – for as much as the SEC values itself – no team is guaranteed a spot in the playoff without a conference championship to its name.

With the ACC (read: Clemson) owning two of the last three national championships and the SEC trending more towards a league that is both top and bottom-heavy, containing few solid and consistent programs in between, there just isn’t a good reason to think that the SEC should have the chance to place two teams in this year’s playoff.

And that’s where the spotlight shines brightest on Georgia.

The Bulldogs don’t play Alabama in the regular season, making it very likely that they’ll be favored in all 12 regular season games.

And unless UGA can beat hyped-up preseason teams like Notre Dame, Texas A&M and Florida while all of those schools have otherwise-great seasons and retain their initial rankings, the Bulldogs will likely run into the same hurdle as before.

If UGA wins the SEC East, it’s most likely that Alabama will be waiting in the conference championship game.

And if Georgia falls to the Crimson Tide for a third consecutive season, even an otherwise great showing in 2019 probably won’t be enough of an argument for UGA to be included in the four-team national championship playoff.

It’s a tough situation for the Bulldogs, but it’s also as simple a proposition as any team could hope for.

Find a way to win the SEC and they’re guaranteed a chance to build on the last two great seasons and possibly attain that elusive national title. At the same time, just about any loss is bound to be the sore spot in yet another great season that doesn’t quite live up to what could have been.

No one doubts that Georgia is one of the best teams in all of college football. But until the Bulldogs can prove otherwise, ‘one of the best’ is all they’ll be.

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