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2021, The Brick Wall

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In which I blow off some steam and try to make some sense of the season.

NCAA Football: Georgia at Georgia Tech Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Another season comes to a close.

Let’s take a quick look at the UGA game and then try to make some sense of 2021.

Note: Gibbs announced his departure while I was about halfway done writing this. If you notice a particularly cynical and fatalistic tone in some places then you know why.

Quick UGA Recap and Thoughts

I don’t really have a lot here honestly. This game was pretty much exactly what we expected it to be: a beatdown by a vastly superior opponent. Our second game being shut out in a row, we managed to gain just 166 yards (68 passing, 98 rushing). Gibbs left after an apparent injury and finished with -3 total yards. The defensive side of the ball wasn’t much better. I’m finding it hard to build up a lot of anger about this game - a 45-point drubbing was about as much as we could’ve hoped for. It was always going to end like this. Whatever.

Oh and the stadium was 80% red. Awesome.

2021, The Brick Wall

Record: 3-9 (2-6 ACC)

Home Record: 1-5

Away Record: 1-4

Neutral Site Record: 1-0

Points For/Game: 24.0

Points Against/Game: 33.5

For the third straight year, we finished the season with only three wins. I don’t think I have to harp on how bad that is. Three wins in the first year was acceptable. In the second year, it was disappointing but somewhat understandable. In this third year, it’s just embarrassing. There is no justification and no excuse for what we saw this year. We were pitiful in basically every area of the game and couldn’t get out of our way for much of the season.

We heard the word “progress” in just about every official communication from the school and staff this year, but that’s all it was: talk. Yes, there were some areas of the game that we looked better in than in 2019 or 2020, but by and large, the 2021 season was a stagnation in the program. The offense was plagued with the same issues that we saw in years past, and the defense actually regressed below the mark of previous seasons.

All of this also happened in a down year for the conference. Pitt was pretty good, but no one else in the Coastal was particularly impressive. Clemson looked human and our cross-division opponent BC was perfectly mediocre. Instead of fighting for the Coastal crown, though, we were struggling to beat Duke, the other bottomfeeder.

It would’ve been perfectly reasonable to expect 6 wins and a low-tier bowl game this year, but instead we got pretty much nothing. Our lone “good win” - UNC - looked worse and worse as the weeks went by. Adding insult to injury, we finished with two of the worst losses the program has ever experienced (including one to our bitter rival that is the current favorite to win the National Championship). Eloquence is overrated; this year outright sucked.

Offense

Much has been made about the “greatest offensive transformation in history,” and the 2021 season doesn’t exactly have me feeling good about where in that transformation process we are. The 24 points per game average is just 0.1 more than we managed in 2020. We struggled with red zone offense; the QB position was either a liability or a non-factor; and the OL production was some of the worst in the P5. As usual, the only bright spot you could point to is the RBs, but even then, I’m honestly kinda disappointed.

It all comes back to the OL - we are still failing to successfully do the thing that all football offense stems from. This was without a doubt the biggest thing holding us back in 2021. The thing that made it worse though is that the coaches didn’t really seem to … notice? For some reason a huge part of our offense was slow-developing run plays and shotgun handoffs - things that played straight into our biggest weakness. I said this in my post about Patenaude’s dismissal, but it really felt like a lot of what we ran was just for the sake of calling ourselves “pro-style” rather than because we actually thought it was a good idea.

As I said, the rushing game was pretty disappointing when you consider the deep talent we have at the RB position. Gibbs managed just 746 rushing yards and 4 TDs as the feature back and the combo of Mason and Smith saw pretty limited play time. Gibbs’ line in particular is criminal - 12 attempts per game for one of the most highly praised backs in the whole country is insane. He made up for it in the receiving game, but he’s really a guy that should be getting 20+ carries per game and 1,500 yards across the season. It always felt like we were relying on him to save us rather than intentionally letting the offense flow organically through him, and that’s an important subtlety in my mind. Now that he’s announced his departure, it absolutely sucks that we did as little as we did in two years with him.

The passing game was marginally better than it was in 2020, but QB decision making and the OL still kept us from really doing anything interesting. The WRs were pretty consistent at the top (three guys with 30+ catches and Sanders had 29), and Kyric McGowan proved to be a fantastic transfer addition. He hauled in 37 catches for 467 yards and 7 TDs, by far our best receiving performance. Still though, those numbers pale in comparison to even the top 50 WRs in the country. As far as the QBs go, Sims never took that next step, and Yates was never really given a lot to work with. Turnovers were still a pain point and the decision making felt lacking.

Two straight shutouts to finish the season was the deserving nail in the coffin for Patenaude. That’s three total in three years (four if you wanna count that our only points against Temple came from a safety). You just can’t do that at this level and I’m at a loss to describe how demoralizing it is. Notre Dame and UGA are obviously two great teams, but in the third year, you have to at least look competent on the field. I don’t want to harp on it too much, but the whole “this is Johnson’s fault, and we need more time” thing makes me seethe at this point. I allowed it in 2019 and 2020, but we’re three years post CPJ now - this staff has to own up and claim this product as their own.

It felt like we could reliably get one or two big plays per game but consistency was a huge struggle all season. I think teams looked at us as nothing to worry about. If I had to point to one thing it would be the complete lack of identity. At times, it felt like we were just flipping a coin to decide what play to run. At other times, it felt like we were intentionally doing something dumb to see what would happen (dive to Gibbs and swing pass to Mason on back-to-back plays?). “Pro-style” is completely meaningless, and I for one am looking forward to an OC that has a concrete scheme and vision that can work with our personnel.

Defense

This is the easiest way to put it: the defense has gotten worse each year under Collins. In 2021 it was absolutely atrocious. I know I’ve talked about my disappointment in the defense many times on this site, but I’m going to pull together all my thoughts here since that’s what season reviews are for. Bear with me.

A few weeks ago, I listed out all the major defensive stats and told y’all how we were in the bottom half in all of them. Let’s check in on those shall we?

  • Points allowed per game - 33.5 (110th)
  • Yards allowed per game - 455.2 (117th)
  • SP+ rating - 32.1 (103rd)
  • Third down conversion rate allowed - 45.2% (118th) (MONEY DOWN)
  • Fourth down conversion rate allowed - 60% (91st)
  • Passing yards allowed per game - 273 (121st)
  • Rushing yards allowed per game - 182.2 (101st)
  • Red zone scoring rate allowed - 88.2% (102nd)
  • Opponent first downs per game - 22.3 (97th)
  • Opponent passing efficiency - 173.3 (130th)
  • TFLs per game - 5.1 (84th)
  • Sacks per game - 1.67 (98th)
  • Turnovers gained per game - 1.1 (94th)

I mean honestly. You’d be hard-pressed to make a compelling argument that we don’t have the worst P5 defense in the country, or at bare minimum a bottom-3 defense. We had no strengths - only weaknesses. The thing we did best was get TFLs but our apparent best was worse than UConn and Illinois. Ted Roof’s defenses were literally better than this and he was known (and brutally made fun of) for having bad defenses. Remember how happy everyone was when he left?

Regression is a hard pill to swallow, especially for a unit with as much experience and talent as this one. In particular, let’s focus on the secondary - by far our biggest weakness in 2021. The core of this group have played together for several years in a row; why on earth are things deteriorating?

Let’s drill down into our pass defense specifically. Six opposing QBs threw for 300+ yards against us; three more threw for 250+; and two of the remaining three were NIU and Kennesaw. Opponents threw on us for an average of 9.8 yards per attempt. Eight separate receivers had 100-yard games on us (Charleson Rambo from Miami even had a 210-yard game). If you take the whole season and treat it like the same QB playing against us 12 times, that QB would have thrown for 3276 yards on 65.4% completions with 28 TDs and 3 INTs to earn that 173.3 passer rating. Again, that line is the WORST IN THE ENTIRE COUNTRY and would be equivalent to the 6th best QB in the country this year. That is unfathomably bad.

We looked worse and worse as the weeks went by. Every game starting with Pitt saw us give up 450+ yards (and an average of 530 yards per game over those eight). We gave up 40+ points in five games (same as 2019 by the way). Assignments were missed, coverages were blown, tackling was poor, and teams were by and large able to run whatever they wanted against us. Too many players to count had their career day against us in 2021. “Paper thin” would be an apt description. So would “bend and break”.

It’s embarrassing. Here we are with the M I N I S T E R O F M A Y H E M and his highly-touted defensive staff and all this talent, and this is the result we get. It’s basically us and Duke in a mud fight to the death for bragging rights over who gets to be in the background of the most opponents’ highlight reels. If you can’t tell, I’m mad about this. There is zero excuse for what is happening on the defensive side of the ball right now. There is no huge scheme transition to blame. There is no “oh no, the personnel aren’t what we need”. Prior to 2019, we had a mediocre defense that at least gave us a chance in games. For the past three years, we’ve had a defense that actively prevents us from winning. The only difference is the staff, and that staff is failing miserably right now. Burton and Popovich have been fired but I’m honestly very disappointed that Thacker isn’t gone as well. As far as I’m concerned the defense needs a complete reboot; something is fundamentally wrong.

Special Teams

Special Teams didn’t really do anything particularly awful but they certainly weren’t good. SP+ ranks them as the 104th SP unit in the country. Losing PH3 turned out to be somewhat of a big deal as our punting average dropped nearly 10 whole yards. On the bright side though, we drastically improved our touchback rate from 24% to 62% and our FG rate from 3/8 (37.5%) to 11/17 (64.7%). At this point I’ll take mediocre over outright bad. We still struggled a lot with little things like getting players on/off the field and kickoff returns but at least we didn’t completely embarrass ourselves. Collins talking about “special teams emphasis” still feels pretty far from reality, but overall I’m willing to say that this unit is moving in the right direction.

Revisiting Season Predictions

Let’s review how I did on predictions at the beginning of the season (spoiler: poorly).

Season Predictions

Wins against NIU, Kennesaw, Duke, UVA, VT, and BC for a final record of 6-6. - WRONG. Incredibly wrong.

1000 yards rushing (1300 all-purpose) from Jahmyr Gibbs - HALF CREDIT. Gibbs finished with just 746 rushing yards but his 465 receiving yards and 589 return yards put him at 1800 all-purpose yards.

25 passing TDs from Jeff Sims - WRONG. Very wrong - Sims ended up only starting 6 games (playing in 7) and finished with just 12 passing TDs. I’m even double wrong because Yates only brought the grand total to 18.

<30 points-per-game allowed - WRONG. Sigh. 33.5.

Malachi Carter is the leading receiver - CORRECT. Carter finished with 494 yards on 38 receptions, both team-highs.

Bold Predictions

8 wins (7 regular season + one bowl) -god I’m dumb.

1500 yards rushing (1800 all-purpose) from Jahmyr Gibbs - again, half credit. But also I hit 1800 right on the money so it’s a big half credit.

4+ ACC Second or First Team players - We finished with either 2 or 3 depending on how you want to count it. Gibbs earned first team as an APB and also second team as a return specialist while Quez Jackson earned second team as a LB.

Turns out even cynical me was too optimistic about this year.

Revisiting My 2020 End-of-Season Wishlist

In last year’s Season Review I listed four things that I wanted to see from us in 2021:

  1. Do the “little things”.
  2. Better offense line play.
  3. A more disciplined defense.
  4. A true receiving threat.

I think we went 0-4.

  1. Things like penalties, poor clock management, field position, and finishing drives in the red zone continued to destroy us. I saw zero improvement here.
  2. Lol. As mentioned previously, the OL was by far the worst part of the offense.
  3. Also lol, see previous section.
  4. Depends on how you want to define “threat”. McGowan was good but probably wouldn’t crack an ACC Top 20 list.

Final Thoughts

I am so sick of the word progress.

Here’s my best analogy of the season: Let’s say I’m a blanket salesman. Without you getting to see any of my products in person, I somehow get you to buy a blanket that is just 1’ x 1’. Sucks right? You’re obviously mad and come back and say I can’t do anything with this tiny blanket, give me a bigger one! So I give you a bigger one: 1.5’ x 1.5’. Hey, that’s what you asked for right? It’s obviously bigger! That’s progress right?

We are making minimal progress, if any. Who cares? We still can’t beat anyone in our weak division and conference. We still can’t avoid being shut out 100-0 across two straight games. We still can’t not faceplant at every available opportunity. The progress I’m seeing is purely on paper.

It bears repeating: this year outright sucked. Everything that could’ve gone wrong did, and almost nothing went right. I don’t think of myself as an alarmist, but this is a dire position for our program to be in. Collins built up a lot of excitement in the fanbase when he came in and that has all but evaporated. Attendance is abysmal; fans are confused and angry; and there isn’t a whole lot to be excited for anymore. It’s a hugely bad sign to see a host of former players publicly calling out what’s happening. The 2021 season needs to serve as a wake up call because there can’t be another 2021.

All we did in 2021 was beat our head against a brick wall and expect it to fall down. We tried the same old things we’ve been doing and expected the results to somehow change. Meanwhile all we heard from the staff is how awesome and ELITE everyone is and how close we are. [Bon Jovi]. Nothing but empty words and empty Waffle House cups.

My overwhelming emotion about this season is anger. 2021 represented a golden opportunity to show we can compete and win in the conference and we completely wasted it. What sucks even more is that this was a season that’s seen so many teams break through - Wake Forest, Oklahoma State, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Michigan State, and Ole Miss to name a few. We were never going to put together a magical 10-win season, but we could’ve at least gotten bowl eligible and put ourselves on the map. Instead, we’re now talked about in the same breath as programs like Kansas and Rutgers. The national media has written us off as a failure that can’t do anything but regurgitate buzzwords and slogans. Instead of “oh you went to GT? Nice little season y’all had, that Gibbs fella sure is exciting!” it’s “oh you went to GT? When are y’all gonna fire that meme coach?”. I hated this year.

Looking Ahead to 2022

I’m struggling to come up with anything positive to say here now that Gibbs is officially gone; he was one of the very few things we had to look forward to. I believe in Dontae Smith, but losing a guy like Gibbs is an immense blow to a program that is already struggling to keep its feet. If we’re going to see any success in 2022 here are the five things that are gonna make it happen:

  1. The defense has to give up less than 30 points per game. Full stop, no exceptions. We have to at least become a mediocre defense again. If the trend doesn’t improve after the first few games then we need to fire Thacker and take a good hard look at firing Collins with him. We are not going to win until the defense pulls it together.
  2. We need to play at or near our best and win the winnable games. Stop letting leads slip away, stop letting teams do what they want on offense, and stop going 3-and-out in late game drives. Focus up and play to potential.
  3. We need serviceable and consistent QB play. At this point I don’t really know who it should be from, but something needs to happen at this position. Go out and grab an experienced transfer guy honestly, whatever it takes. Find a way to make the QB not a liability anymore.
  4. The OL has to make a big leap in production. As sick as I am of hearing about “Johnson’s OL” in 2021, I’m going to absolutely scream at someone if they bring it up in 2022. If the OL continues to be the weakest position group and the thing holding us back then Key needs to go; he’s had far too long to work with these guys for the results to be as poor as they are.
  5. The staff needs to show some real honesty and responsibility. Stop telling me how great everything is and how much progress we’re making. Stop giving me slogans and using the same three words. Tell me what you think is wrong and tell me exactly how you plan on fixing it. Show me you are at least minimally self-aware.

When Collins first got hired, 2022 was the “GT starts competing for the ACC Championship” step in the plan. That’s out the window. After we all course-corrected in the wake of 2020, 2022 became “comfortably make a bowl”. That’s out the window. Now I don’t have much faith in anything. We’ve got a hard schedule y’all. We have a high chance of going 1-3 in OOC games (Ole Miss, UCF, and UGA specifically) on top of Clemson, resurgent FSU, peaking Pitt, and perpetually-talented Miami. Duke and Western Carolina are the only teams I feel comfortable penciling in as wins - everyone else is at least a potential loss. There’s an incredibly realistic chance that we only win three games again.

The big question right now for 2022 is a two-parter: what does the offense look like with a new OC and without Gibbs? At times this season it looked like Gibbs was the only reason we won games or kept losses close - how do we move on from our best player? I’m willing to believe that a small improvement in the defense is possible but there are just too many open questions on the offensive side of the ball right now and that is not giving me a lot of confidence going into 2022.

Here’s the thing though, 2022 has to end in a bowl game for it to be a success. If it doesn’t then I don’t see a good reason to keep Collins and we’ll just have to start this whole charade again in 2023 with a new coach. Four years is a generous amount of time to create a bowl eligible program (while starting with one, mind you!). If we don’t do it now then we’ve got a loooong wait ahead of us.

5 wins in 2021 would’ve been fine and then we could’ve felt a lot better about the prospects of 6 or 7 wins in 2022. Now we’ve got to make a much larger jump and from shaky ground. The worst thing 2021 did was dismantle any shred of wiggle room that this staff had. They’ve left no room for error.

I don’t care how we do it, but we’ve gotta fix it. I’ve made several jokes about it over the last few weeks but I’m serious now: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. We cannot go into 2022 with the same game plan; we have to make some changes. Someone has to break down the brick wall.