DawgsOnline
Since 1995 - Insightful commentary on the Georgia Bulldogs

Post Homecoming 2020

Friday November 20, 2020

Believe it or not, it’s Homecoming Weekend at Georgia. No, there’s no parade and no halftime coronation. But there is a Homecoming Court, and the school and Alumni Association are doing their best to host virtual events even as students prepare to vacate campus for the holiday week. Such is life in 2020 – everything requires a bit of extra flexibility and creativity.

It’s a homecoming for the football team too. It’s been over a month since Georgia played in Sanford Stadium, and just a thing or two has changed since the Dawgs ended Tennessee’s winning streak and looked ahead to the start of their long stretch away from home. We’ve seen a rash of injuries, had the schedule shuffled twice by the pandemic, and had the quarterback position thrown into disarray. We’ve seen a top 4 team drop two games and fall out of the top 10. We’ve see Georgia supplanted atop the SEC East by Florida, ending hopes of another division title and playoff shot. In short, it hasn’t been a great six weeks away from home. These are the big issues facing the program as they attempt to salvage the final three or four games of the regular season and hopefully avoid a disastrous loss.

Quarterback crisis: Stetson Bennett entered the Alabama game as a sudden celebrity. There were glowing features about his rise from obscurity to become Georgia’s starter, and he had guided Georgia to three SEC wins to start the season. Since that trip to Tuscaloosa, Bennett’s grip on the starting job has become less of a feel-good story and more of a symptom of a second-straight season of underperforming Georgia offense. Bennett has six interceptions against just three touchdown passes over the last three games, and he has completed less than 50% of his passes over that stretch. A shoulder injury to Bennett against Florida led coaches to give D’Wan Mathis another shot under center, and the results weren’t much better. Bennett is still not completely back from that shoulder injury, and there’s unsubstantiated buzz that Mathis might be getting a look at receiver. That leaves…

The debut of J.T. Daniels? Even before Bennett strengthened his hold on the starting job in the Auburn and Tennessee games, fans wondered when we’d see Southern Cal transfer J.T. Daniels get his shot. Daniels received medical clearance early in the season, but that doesn’t mean he was physically or mentally ready to play. Kirby Smart has downplayed the inevitability of playing Daniels, saying only that Daniels continued to work and improve. The injury to Bennett and an unexpected week off gave coaches the opportunity to reevaluate the roster, and Daniels has reportedly seen his share of snaps with the starting unit. Does that mean Daniels will start on Saturday? Not necessarily. But if he doesn’t, as Blutarsky concludes, it would be a depressing statement about Georgia’s talent at the most important position in modern football.

Injury tent: The Bulldogs have battled injuries on both sides of the ball, and those setbacks have changed the look of the team. Leading receiver George Pickens missed the past two games. Tailbacks Kenny McIntosh and Kendall Milton have been dinged up and missed time. Various linemen haven’t been able to finish games, and of course Bennett’s injury cut short a promising start in Jacksonville. But the defensive side of the ball has been hit the hardest. Nose tackle Jordan Davis went out early in the Kentucky game, and the interior defense hasn’t been the same since. Monty Rice has played through a foot injury at less than 100%. The secondary played most of the Florida game without either starting safety, and Richard LeCounte might not play again this season. Hopefully Lewis Cine will return, but it’s still a dinged-up unit.

Defensive fatal flaw? Georgia came into the season boasting significant returning experience from a dominant 2019 defense, but the unit has struggled to live up to its billing as the nation’s best. Advanced stats still like the Dawgs: ESPN’s SP+ rates the defense #1. That said, Kirby Smart’s scheme and lineup has been lit up by the two best offenses on the schedule, and injuries have only been part of the story. The defense has helped its stats by keeping teams like Auburn and Kentucky out of the endzone, but it wasn’t able to slow down – much less affect the outcome – of decisive games against Florida and Alabama.

What’s changed? This tweet illustrates what you’ve seen with your own eyes. The explosive play is shredding an otherwise decent unit. We’ve even seen the big play do damage in Georgia’s wins: Arkansas jumped out ahead on a long pass play. Tennessee built a halftime lead with two long scores. Those offenses weren’t good enough to sustain the barrage. Florida’s and Alabama’s offenses were. Georgia’s pass rush has been effective at generating pressure, but if the quarterback is able to get the pass off, big gains (or interference penalties) have too often been the result. That’s an unsettling feeling going into a game against an opponent that likes to throw 60+ times per game.

What next? Yes, we’re in a situation the program hasn’t faced since 2016. Sure, Florida could slip up and lose to two of Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Kentucky, and LSU. Hope springs eternal! Realistically Georgia is going to have to find a different motivation with which to finish out the season. This is an especially precarious year, and we’ve even seen SEC players decide to pack it in with games left to play. Georgia might not have had any players opt out, but it’s not hard for the same “what’s the point?” mentality to take root in any program that’s essentially out of the playoff conversation. That’s why I’m not downplaying talk of things like black jerseys – there haven’t been many opportunities to simply have fun and enjoy a season that’s been disrupted since the spring, and any little gesture can help a team pull together and get through the remaining schedule.

Georgia will be heavily favored in its remaining games. Let’s say it – a loss (or even a nailbiter) in any of them on top of the previous two losses would mean trouble. Ideally, the upcoming month will be a time of growth. Perhaps the new offense will finally begin to realize its potential led by a different quarterback. Perhaps some younger players will see more time than they did during the closer early-season games. Perhaps Georgia will right the ship, get some injured players back, and finish 8-2 to earn a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl. We can work with that and reset for a more complete and normal 2021 season. But with no end to the weekly uncertainty, players opting out, and injuries mounting, it might be enough to ask that the team gets the opportunity to finish out the season at all.