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2 stout defenses set to meet in SEC championship

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2 stout defenses set to meet in SEC championship

ATHENS, Ga. (AP) Alabama lost a bunch of stars to the NFL, yet it's hard to tell much difference. The Crimson Tide still has the nation's top-ranked defense.

There was never any shortage of talent at Georgia, where all the best defensive players decided to remain in college for another year. Even so, the Bulldogs didn't start playing up to their potential until they were called out by one of their own.

An outburst by safety Shawn Williams, who accused his teammates of playing ``soft,'' sparked a dramatic turnaround at Georgia. It's a big reason the third-ranked Bulldogs (11-1) will face No. 2 Alabama (11-1) for the Southeastern Conference championship on Saturday, with the winner claiming a spot in the national title game.

One thing seems certain: Both offenses will have trouble moving the ball.

``When you play with a team that has a great defense or had a great defense before you got here,'' said Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner, ``you want to keep the standard going.''

Granted, the Crimson Tide has not been quite as dominant as a year ago, when the defense was led by four players - Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw - who were among the first 35 picks in the NFL draft. Alabama gave up more than 400 yards in two straight games, managing to pull out a win with a last-minute drive at LSU, but going down in a shocking upset to Texas A&M in Tuscaloosa.

Still, the Tide leads the country in points allowed (9.25 per game) and total defense (233.7 yards).

``Those two games, we knew and the coaches knew ... we didn't play our best,'' linebacker C.J. Mosley said. ``So after that loss, we kind of got back to the basics of doing what we have to do. Just doing the little things we do every day in practice - wrapping up, tackles, foot work. Once you lose sight of those things, that's when the big plays start to happen.''

Georgia could've gone into the season with some big holes to fill on defense, but their two leading players - fearsome linebacker Jarvis Jones and ball-hogging safety Bacarri Rambo - passed on the chance to enter the NFL draft. Three other seniors, Williams, cornerback Sanders Commings and nose guard John Jenkins, also returned.

But, when the Bulldogs kicked off in the season opener, three key players were missing. Rambo had to serve a four-game suspension, reportedly for failing a drug test. Commings sat out the first two games after being arrested for an altercation with his girlfriend. Another of the starters, linebacker Alec Ogletree, was suspended four games for an undisclosed violation of team rules.

With so many guys watching from the sideline, Georgia gave up 23 points to Buffalo, 20 to Florida Atlantic. Even when all the suspended players returned, the defense continued to struggle in a 51-44 shootout victory against Tennessee.

The following week, it all fell apart. South Carolina romped to a 35-7 victory over the Bulldogs. The next game wasn't much better, as Georgia struggled to a beat lowly Kentucky 29-24. At that point, Georgia had given up at least 20 points in six of its seven games. With a huge contest coming up against unbeaten Florida, Williams decided it was time to vent.

He said the defense was ``just not playing with the same attitude we were last year.'' In particular, he appeared to single out a pair of teammates, senior linebackers Christian Robinson and Michael Gilliard. They took issue with the comments and vowed to prove Williams wrong. That week, Georgia turned in its best defensive performance of the season, beating the Gators 17-9.

``He didn't do that to disrespect anyone,'' cornerback Damian Swann said. ``He wanted everyone to give 110 percent. He just felt like everybody wasn't. Once he came out and said what he had to say, you've seen a big change in the statistics with how the defense is doing.''

Indeed, Georgia has surrendered only 43 points in its last five games. The yards are also down significantly during that span, an average of 296.4 per game compared to 367.4 over the first seven contests.

Robinson can now smile when asked about Williams' rant.

``I think other people were nervous about getting called out,'' the linebacker quipped. ``They were thinking, `If I don't show up this week, am I going to get called out, too?' It's funny when you look at it now.''

Georgia coach Mark Richt is just glad that someone took the lead, though he wasn't necessarily pleased with the way Williams did it at the time, going through the media instead of speaking behind closed doors.

``When they get their blood high,'' Richt said of his defense, ``they play better.''

The Bulldogs are certainly showing a lot more swagger on that side of the line. Rambo provided the first big dose of bulletin-board material when, in a national radio interview, he said he felt like Georgia had more talent than the Crimson Tide. No one else has gone that far, but everyone says they match up well with the defending national champions.

``Their defense has been one of the tops in the country for the past couple of years,'' Swann said. ``Statistically, we had a couple of games where we didn't look too good. Now, we're getting back to the Georgia defense we know we can be.''

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: Just how deep is Washington's blue line?

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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: Just how deep is Washington's blue line?

It’s time for a new Capitals Mailbag! You can read Wednesday’s Part 1 here.

Check out Part 2 below.

Have a Caps question you want answered in the next mailbag? Send it on Twitter using #CapsMailNBC or by email to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Douglas F. writes: Now that we traded away Matt Niskanen will Nick Jensen be paired with Dmitry Orlov? I personally would like to see how Jonas Siegenthaler would do beside him. My ideal defensive pairings: John Carlson/Michal Kempny, Jonas Siegenthaler/Dmitry Orlov, Nick Jensen (or Radko Gudas)/ Christian Djoos. Would that make sense?

What you have to consider is the shooting side of each player. Michal Kempny, Dmitry Orlov, Jonas Siegenthaler and Christian Djoos are left-shot defensemen while John Carlson, Nick Jensen and Radko Gudas are all right-shot defensemen. I don’t see the team putting two leftys together in the top four. Right-shot defensemen are harder to find and the Caps have three of them. That is a luxury not every team gets and I do not see Washington going into the season with a plan to willingly giving up that advantage.

Brian MacLellan telegraphed his feelings on Jensen when he traded for him and re-signed him for four years before he ever put on a Caps jersey. They see him as a top-four and that is where they are going to use him.

Granted, if Jensen struggles then pretty much all options are on the table so perhaps we could see this possibility later in the season.

I also get your point on Siegenthaler. I liked him a lot last season. I was surprised it took four games to get him into the playoffs and I was not surprised to see him move up to the top pairing after that. For now, however, putting him on the third pair with Gudas makes the most sense to me not just because of his inexperience but because of the guys ahead of him.

Paul O. writes: With the glut of young defensemen in the prospect pool, along with good ones moving fast in Alex Alexeyev and Martin Fehervary, has the team soured on Connor Hobbs and Lucas Johansen ever making the jump to the big club?

I am not sure “soured” would be the right word for it as I think this has more to do with how impressed the team has been with Alexeyev and Fehervary than any negative feelings towards Hobbs and Williams.

Hobbs was a fifth-round draft pick who has shown that he may have had more potential than initially thought and could reach the NHL, but he was always going to be a third-pairing type of player so it is no surprise to see highly touted prospects like Alexeyev and Fehervary push for the NHL before Hobbs makes it there. His defense has improved tremendously, but the offensive skill that made him a standout in the WHL has not translated to the AHL as of yet. Johansen was hampered greatly by an upper-body injury last season and looks very jumpy with the puck on his stick which is not good news for a player in whom puck-moving was supposed to be a major part of his game.

The bigger concern of the two would be Johansen as he is a first-round pick. That means the team saw him as being a significant NHL contributor and I do not think they would have anticipated him getting passed on the depth chart before reaching the NHL. Hobbs, however, was always going to be a long-shot as a fifth-rounder.

To me, the greater takeaway is not that the team has soured on anyone, but that they are so high on both Alexeyev and Fehervary. Hopefully the other two will continue to develop and eventually catch up, but the silver-lining is you have at least two defensemen the team seems pretty confident can compete for an NHL spot in the near future.

Luka K. writes: Hershey has eight defensemen who all deserve and need to play (Erik Burgdoerfer, Connor Hobbs, Lucas Johansen, Colby Williams, Alex Alexeyev, Martin Fehervary, Tobias Geisser, Tyler Lewington and probably Bobby Nardella)? Who is deemed surplus, an ECHL ticket or possible trade for forward prospect?

In addition to the nine you mentioned, Hershey also has Tommy Hughes and Kristofers Bindulis. That gives the Bears 11 defensemen which should make for a crowded blue line even for the AHL where teams carry more players. Of those nine, Burgdoerfer and Hughes are the only two not under contract with the Caps and are playing on AHL contracts with Hershey.

I would assume Bindulis is headed to the ECHL. He played in only four games for the Bears last season and 12 the season before with 34 games in the ECHL with the South Carolina Stingrays. He certainly looks like the odd-man out. Hughes played last season in Europe, but was with Hershey in 2017-18 and spent the majority of that season in the ECHL. I could easily see him head there this year as well, though I expect Hershey wanted him and Burgdoerfer as veterans to help the younger guys.

Speaking of the younger guys, if they are struggling with the transition and are not getting much playing time, they may get a tour in South Carolina, but the Caps will want to see their top prospects in action and I imagine most of those players will stick around in Hershey.

The only one I could potentially see eventually being on the trade block is Johansen. As a first-round pick, he still could have some trade value. When you start getting passed on the team’s depth chart, it does not take long before your trade value surpasses your on-ice value.

Brian D. writes: Can you please explain the Connor McMichael signing? He’s not going to crack the Caps roster this year and he’s too young to play in the AHL so it’s almost guaranteed he’s going back to juniors this year. So why pay a salary to a player (and burn years off his entry level contract) to play in juniors the next two years? Why not wait till he’s ready to play professional hockey to start paying him and using his entry level contract years?

Barring a miraculous performance in training camp, no, Connor McMichael is not going to make the NHL roster this year. You are also correct in that he is still with his junior team so, by rule, he cannot play in the AHL. He can either play in the NHL or the OHL this season, there are no other options. The good news, however, is that McMichael is not going to burn a year off his contract.

Because most players require more development before they reach the NHL, entry-level contracts slide so as not to punish a team for its patience. So long as McMichael does not play 10 NHL games next season, he will not burn the first year of his contract and will not earn a salary. The only money he will be paid is his signing bonus. There are rules as to when an unsigned draft pick becomes a free agent and when some players get close to seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, they elect to wait it out and head into free agency. Signing these players to NHL contracts early in their careers when they are excited about getting drafted is much easier than waiting until they start to think the grass may be greener on the other side.

So why not just immediately sign every draft pick to a contract and let them continuously slide until you need them thus avoiding losing them to free agency? Because teams are limited to only 50 contracts and teams could quickly run out of room to sign or trade for more players they may desperately need. The Caps ran into this issue last season. With 50 players already under contract, the team could not sign highly touted prospect Chase Priskie who has declared he will wait until Aug. 15 when he will become a free agent. If the team could have signed Priskie at the end of his college season last year and brought him right away to the AHL or NHL it could potentially have enticed him to sign. Instead the Caps now stand to lose him for nothing.

So I hear you, Brian, but there is no reason to fear. Now the Caps have McMichael signed and do not have to worry about him holding out for free agency several years from now, but they also are not losing any contract years.

Phillip M. writes: With the Seattle Expansion Draft approaching and the Caps having signed most of their key players through the next 2 years I have a question. NHL teams can protect 7 forwards, 3 defensemen and a goalie, or any 8 skaters plus 1 goalie. I understand first and second year NHL players, and unsigned draft choices are exempt. So I assume that means signed non-NHL playing draft choices can be selected. Are Alex Alexeyev, Connor McMichael, Brett Leason and Ilya Samsonov available to be selected by Seattle? Who do you expect the team will most likely protect?

What qualifies as first and second-year players to the NHL is players who have finished at least two seasons of professional North American play. I explained above how a player burns the first year of his entry-level contract. With the expansion draft two years away, that means any prospects who remain with their junior teams at least through this season will not qualify not have to worry about the expansion draft including McMichael.

Ilya Samsonov already burned the first year of his contract last season and with Alexeyev and Leason expected to play in Hershey this season, all three will likely qualify for the expansion draft..

It is really hard to project between now and 2021, but if you insist:

Seven forwards: Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, Jakub Vrana, Lars Eller, Brett Leason

Three defensemen: John Carlson, Jonas Siegenthaler, Alex Alexeyev

Goalie: Ilya Samsonov

Don’t hold me to this, a lot can happen in two years.

John F. writes: Will an enterprising team owner (with deep pockets) ever consider building an outdoor arena designed specifically for hockey? Sticking an outdoor game in a baseball or football stadium seems like a bad way to watch a hockey game.

I can’t see this ever happening. Maintaining a playable ice surface is incredibly hard to do inside in an arena. When you put it outside, you are greatly complicating things. The league does a great job with its outdoor games, but this is just for one game. Building an entire stadium for the limited number of Winter Classics and Stadium Series games it would host would not be feasible. If you are suggesting a team could have all its home games outdoors, this would be a nightmare in terms of maintaining the ice surface for the full season especially when the weather gets warm. Heaven forbid you try to have a playoff game there.

Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want read and answered in the next mailbag, send it to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.

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Nationals Roundup: Nats' bullpen spoils Erick Fedde's economical outing

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Nationals Roundup: Nats' bullpen spoils Erick Fedde's economical outing

The Battle of the Beltway Series finale didn't go as planned for the Nationals in Baltimore Wednesday night. Washington settles for a series split and falls to 50-44 following its 9-2 loss to the Orioles. 

Consider these news and notes as Davey Martinez's club heads south for a pivotal four-game weekend series in Atlanta. 

Player Notes:

Can you say economical? Erick Fedde cruised through six innings inside Oriole Park at Camden Yards on just 66 pitches (40 strikes). The 26-year-old surrendered just one run on five hits while striking out two. 

Very quietly, Adam Eaton is hitting .330 over his last 29 games and has reached base safely in 73 of 89 games in 2019. His third-inning sacrifice fly brought in Victor Robles, and a fifth-inning double -- his 12th of the season -- brought in Trea Turner. 

To put it quite simply, the Nationals' bullpen imploded Wednesday night following Fedde's exit. Wander Suero recorded just one out while allowing three runs, three hits and walking one Oriole. Just nine of his 19 pitches were thrown for strikes. Javy Guerra and Matt Grace then went on to allow a combined three runs on six hits, and Baltimore never looked back.  

Injuries: 

SP Max Scherzer: Back, Expected to be out until at least Jul 20

RP Jonny Venters: Back, Expected to be out until at least Jul 18

SP Jeremy Hellickson: Shoulder, Expected to be out until at least Jul 20

RP Justin Miller: Shoulder, Expected to be out until at least Jul 16

RP Koda Glover: Elbow, Expected to be out until at least Aug 7

RP Austen Williams: Shoulder, Expected to be out until at least Jul 17

Coming Up:

Thursday 7/18: Nationals at Braves, 7:20 p.m., SunTrust Park

Friday 7/19: Nationals at Braves, 7:20 p.m., SunTrust Park 

Saturday 7/20: Nationals at Braves, 7:20 p.m., SunTrust Park 

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