Mistakes Will Cost UGA, but When?

ATHENS - Kirby Smart has avoided something in the last two games that happened to Mark Richt a fair amount over the last five seasons.

NOTE: Some heavy lifting on statistical reading here... its a slow read... 

He won back-to-back games where the Bulldogs gave up a special teams TD (UNC) and when the Bulldogs turned the ball over three times or more in a game (NSU). UGA’s win over UNC came even though the Tar Heels scored on a 95-yard kickoff return to start the second half. Seven days later, Kirby and company woke up just in time to save themselves from a three-turnover day and what would have likely been the most embarrassing loss in program history. 

Since 2010, UGA has played 82 games. Many of the games the Bulldogs play are forgetful (about 34% of them). Those contests have no special teams TDs, and turnovers by both teams are limited to two or fewer. Those contests, in other words, are decided pretty much by the offense and defense… its standard football. The vast majority of the time the better team wins. A significant majority of the time, in fact 71% of the time, the Bulldogs win. 

But about two-thirds of UGA’s games have momentum-shifting moments in them on special teams, or end with one (or both) team(s) turning the ball over three or more times in a game. More often than not, those games are SEC games. More specifically, when UGA or its foe struggles (like it has in the last two games with these events), it has come in “big games” like the ones against the Gators (2010-12; 2014-15), Vols (2010-15), Auburn (2011, 2014-15), Tech (2010, 2014-15), LSU (2011) and Alabama (2012 and 2015).

In all of the contests mentioned above, at least one of the two teams had either a special teams score or had three or more turnovers. But the 2013 LSU, 2012 Auburn, 2011 and 2012 Tech games didn’t have the described events. Georgia won all of those contests pretty much going away save the incredible game with LSU in 2013. 

UGA used six Gators turnovers in 2012 to defeat Florida and win the SEC East. But the Dawgs had to survive a kickoff return for a TD in 2011 to win vs. the Gators. UGA wasn’t able to overcome four turnovers in 2010, a fake FG for a TD in 2014 or Faton Bauta’s INT parade in 2015 to beat the Gators in those years.

That’s why the last two games are both concerning and, perhaps, relieving. The good news is that UGA won both games (trust me when I tell you that’s not always the case). The bad news is that playing that way in the future, if the past is any indication, will lead to losses - perhaps losses that shouldn’t happen like the 2013 loss at Vanderbilt (3 turnovers and a special teams TD against UGA), the 2011 loss to South Carolina (3 turnovers, which included a INT return for a TD, a fumble recovery for a TD and a fake punt for a TD) and the 2014 loss to Georgia Tech (3 turnovers - two inside the five-yard line).

By contrast, UGA wins 90% of its games when it either forced three or more turnovers or has a special teams TD. Only three times in the last six seasons (2015 Tennessee, 2012 Alabama and 2011 Michigan State) have the Bulldogs lost a game while accomplishing either feat. The loss to the Spartans is the only game since 2010 where UGA has gotten three turnovers and lost that game. The 2015 UT game is inexplicable because not only did UGA score a special teams TD, but it also scored a defensive TD. The 2012 Alabama loss is memorable because its probably the greatest SEC Championship Game in history - not because of Alec Ogletree’s blocked FG return for a TD.

So what does all of this mean? About five times a season UGA has a game where it turns the ball over three times or gives up a special teams TD. They usually win about half of those games and lose about half. We’ve seen two of those games thus far, so if two more occur UGA “should” lose them. In the last four years, UGA has lost at least two games each season because of turnovers or special teams play with the exception of the 2012 season. And even that year the Dawgs lost one game because of it (2012 South Carolina; punt return for a TD).

It must be said, too, that with the bad typically comes the good. We don’t operate in a vacuum where UGA doesn’t play well and only performs poorly. The Bulldogs typically have around six games a season where they score a special teams TD or get three or more turnovers - like they did against Nicholls State. Last season it happened five times with the Bulldogs going 4-1 in those games. In 2014, it happened five times with the Bulldogs going 5-0. That only happened once in 2013 (Kentucky), but it happened seven times in 2012 and 2011 with UGA going 6-1 in those contest both seasons. The only time UGA won up undefeated in games where it either got three or more turnovers or scored a special teams TD was in 2010 when they had a 5-0 record.

UGA is 5-1 in games in which it forces three or more turnovers AND scores a special teams TD (2011 Michigan State), proving that nothing is a certainty in sports, and that teams can absorb rather than dodge bullets and still win games.

So if the past holds up: UGA is at 2-0. It “should” lose two game because of what’s being described in this article. It “should” win at least five more games because of forcing three turnovers or more or scoring a TD on special teams. And it should have at least two more wins because it is the better team and nothing in the world of special teams or turnovers happens to shift the game for either team playing that day.

That leaves one game - likely the game with the Gators - which will decide if UGA gets to ten wins on the season, and likely if it gets to Atlanta as the champion of the SEC East. 

Long story short? Turnovers and special teams have been a weakness of sorts for the Bulldogs in the short tenure of Kirby in Athens. UGA has given up only 48 total points on the season, but the 24 of them were as a direct result of a turnover or a special teams TD. Even if UGA cut those mistakes in half (12 points rather than 24), their wins would have been more lopsided and their stay in the top ten wouldn’t have been so short. 

Oh, and if the past is any indicator they were lucky to come away with wins in both cases.

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