Georgia's road to a national title next season just became a lot more complicated.
The team announced this week that wide receiver George Pickens suffered an ACL injury that will require surgery. While the school did not release a timetable for Pickens' return, ACL injuries end seasons. With just over five months until the Bulldogs are scheduled to take on Clemson in Charlotte on Sept. 4, it's fair to question when Pickens will be available to play this year, if he's available at all.
It doesn't take a genius to realize Pickens' importance to the team. The former five-star recruit made an impact the moment he stepped foot in Athens, leading the team in receiving by a wide margin during his freshman season. Pickens' 49 receptions were 16 more than anybody on the team, and his 727 receiving yards were 251 yards more than anybody else. That performance was why there were such high expectations on Pickens and the entire Georgia offense heading into 2020. With Todd Monken coming in, it was anticipated that Georgia would adopt a more wide-open, passing approach. Coupled with the arrival of transfer quarterbacks Jamie Newman from Wake Forest and another former five-star recruit in J.T. Daniels from USC, and the Bulldogs seemed ready to explode.
Instead, Newman never played a snap, opting out of the 2020 season. Daniels, meanwhile, needed more time to recover from his own ACL injury. Georgia was left with D'Wan Mathis, who never seemed like a fit in the new offense, and Stetson Bennett, who seemed like a better fit for the Georgia offense of old. Pickens' game suffered with them.
As shown in the table below, Pickens ran the most routes of any Georgia player in the first four games of the season (he missed the team's games against Kentucky and Florida due to injury), but was third in targets.
|Player||Routes||Targets||Receptions||Rec. Rate||Yards per target||Route Depth|
You'll notice how the shorter the average route depth is for each player listed how much more efficient and productive they were, with running back James Cook and tight end John FitzPatrick doing the most with the least.
It wasn't until Pickens returned from his injury and Daniels took over as the team's starter that Pickens began to look like his old self. Let's look at this same chart with the same players, but with Daniels at QB, and replace James Cook with Kenny McIntosh who played a bigger role out of the backfield during this stretch.
|Player||Routes||Targets||Receptions||Rec. Rate||Yards per target||Route depth|
Pickens' average route depth stayed effectively the same, but his efficiency exploded with Daniels. He improved his catch rate on targets by a full 10%, and his yards per target exploded from 1.01 to 11.66. In short, he became the kind of big-play receiver that Georgia was hoping it had and that it needs if it's going to win a national title.
As you can see when looking at the two charts, it's not just Pickens' numbers that improved. The other receivers and tight end became more efficient, while the running back became less critical but still productive. This shows how significant an improvement Daniels was to Mathis and Bennett, and Pickens emerged as his favorite target.
Now, let's step outside Athens and look at college football as a whole to get a better understanding of why Pickens' injury is so significant for the Bulldogs. Essentially, aside from the QB position, wide receivers are quickly becoming the most critical player in any offense. Devonta Smith won the Heisman Trophy last year. While he was the first receiver to do so since Desmond Howard in 1991, it's been an inevitability that a receiver would win the award eventually with more offenses becoming pass-oriented.
But we don't just have to take the Heisman as an indicator. Look at the teams playing for national titles. Smith was at the head of the most impressive receiver group (assuming total health for Jaylen Waddle) in the country. Ohio State reached the title game and got past Clemson in the semis largely due to having more receiving talent than the Tigers. In 2019, LSU tore the world apart with its cadre of receiving weapons.
If you look at the receivers who have been selected in the first round of the NFL Draft in recent seasons, it becomes even more apparent. Since 2017, 13 receivers have been selected in the first round. Seven of them played on teams that reached the College Football Playoff at least once during their career. If you look at mock drafts for this spring, the receivers who most often pop up in the first round are Smith, Jaylen Waddle and Ja'Marr Chase. Three receivers who all won national titles. We could see another LSU receiver in Terrace Marshall jump into the first round, and if Ohio State's Garrett Wilson were eligible, you could bet he'd be there too. It's possible Chris Olave could say the same had he left Columbus.
The more talented a team is, the greater its chances of reaching the College Football Playoff. But we've also seen the top quarterbacks in the country all being funneled to the same schools in recent seasons as well, which means that it's the skill and talent at receiver that serves as the separator between the elite programs more and more. That's why the Pickens injury is such a massive blow to the Bulldogs' title hopes.
If Pickens can't play in 2021, it doesn't eliminate the Bulldogs from consideration because they still have players like Jermaine Burton and Kearis Jackson who flourished under Daniels. But Pickens could be the difference between reaching the College Football Playoff and winning it once you're there.
Lincoln Riley is a real college football coach now
Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley has been on the national scene for so long now that it's easy to forget he'll only be 37 years old when the Sooners play their first game of the season against Tulane (he'll celebrate his 38th birthday the next day). On Tuesday, we got a sign that the young wunderkind is growing into a grizzled veteran coach when he explained why he hadn't released transfer QB Chandler Morris, who left the Sooners for TCU.
"This particular situation for us is about something that we believe in. Myself, the leadership here at OU, we think it's unhealthy for college football to encourage intra-conference transfers," said Riley when asked why he hadn't released Morris. "That doesn't mean we are against transfers to any other institutions they want. That rule obviously has been changed, and I think it was a good rule to change. And now players have the ability and freedom as they should to be able to go to any school they want. But I do think the intraconference can complicate things. Coaches understand the big picture, and that's going to bring along a lot of negatives that we don't want in this game. That's been something we've been adamantly opposed to for a long time."
Ah, yes, the ol' "I'm all for player freedom unless it could hurt me and I have the power to stop it" reasoning.
I fully understand where Riley -- or any coach -- is coming from when it comes to players transferring to another school in your conference. That said, when you're getting paid the amount of money coaches are, it's a more than fair trade-off for the headaches presented.
NCAA Tournament shows the flaws of a selection committee
The NCAA Tournament has been a lot of fun so far. As is typically the case when the tournament gets a little crazy, people are using it as an example of why the College Football Playoff should expand to include more teams and be more open to the Group of Five. The logic behind the argument is that, based on the number of "Cinderellas" reaching the Sweet 16 this season (if you add the seeds of the 16 teams remaining, it's the highest in tournament history since the field expanded), it's possible we could have Cinderellas in football as well.
I'm not going to argue against that. Of course we could have Cinderellas in football, but they're far less likely, and then there's the debate of "do you want the best team to win the national title or just to be entertained by a tournament?" There's no right or wrong answer there.
No, I'm going to argue that the thing we should take away from the 2021 NCAA Tournament isn't that the field should expand, but instead, it shows the flaws of a human selection committee. Those Cinderellas? Yeah, most of them aren't really Cinderellas. Let's take a look at the 16 teams remaining in the NCAA Tournament by their KenPom rating.
Sweet 16 by KenPom ranking— Tom Fornelli (@TomFornelli) March 23, 2021
13. Florida State
50. Oregon State
128. Oral Roberts
KenPom ratings are an analytical rating of teams based on how they've played, not all that different from the same kind of power ratings used in gambling. As you can see, 13 of the 16 teams remaining in the tournament currently rank within the top 24 teams in the country. That's well within a normal range of outcomes.
Now compare those KenPom ratings with the seeds the selection committee gave the teams. Loyola was an 8-seed in the Midwest despite being a top-10 team in the country according to KenPom (as well as the NCAA's own NET ratings!). USC is a 6-seed in the West while ranked as the No. 6 team in the country by KenPom!
Again, the NCAA Tournament isn't proof that the College Football Playoff selection committee needs to be more open to Group of Five schools or that the field needs to expand. It's just further proof that any playoff format should have a set of guidelines to determine the eligible teams, not a rotating group of people with personal biases and human fallibility.