On Oct. 13, the Bulldogs lost 36-16 at LSU. They trailed 16-0 at the half. Unlike his mentor, Kirby Smart didn’t opt to change quarterbacks during the break. Fields worked only five snaps, handing off on four. Due to Georgia’s multiple failures on offense in Baton Rouge, it was assumed that, after a bye week, the Florida game would see him Fields assumed a greater role. He didn’t play at all.
This isn’t to suggest that Smart has mishandled his quarterbacks. His team is 23-4 with Jake Fromm starting, and it’s hard to forge a succession plan when two quarterbacks are a year apart. It’s also hard to know just how good Fields is – he did rush for 100 yards and throw two touchdown passes against UMass – because he hasn’t gotten the break that fell into Tagovailoa’s lap at halftime on Jan. 8.
Any thoughts Tagovailoa had of transferring were washed away with his title-winning throw on second-and-26. He has started every game since, Hurts having been reduced to a ridiculously overqualified understudy. (Though Hurts did lead Bama to its second comeback victory over Georgia in 11 months, this one for the SEC title, after Tua was hurt.) Barring injury, there seems no chance that Fields will ever displace Fromm, who ranks third nationally in passing efficiency – behind Kyler Murray, Heisman winner, and Tagovailoa, Heisman runner-up.
On Sunday, Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney was asked about the difficulty in wrangling two gifted quarterbacks. “It’s been tough,” he said. “There’s no question about that.”
Then: “If you look over at the wide receiver spots and you say, ‘Hey, that kid standing by me on the sideline, he has a unique skill set. Let's try to utilize him.’ If you look at the quarterbacks the same way, we kind of tried to do that with Justin a little bit. We don't want to leave our team at a disadvantage because of any particular position. You try to do the best you can by utilizing the skill set of your existing players.”
Then: “You look back on the season ... I don't know. I'll reflect back on it when the season is over. Right now I think we did right.”
Georgia players have admitted lobbying Fields to stay. Might Georgia’s coaches do something more tangible? Might they give him more work against Texas in an attempt to re-recruit him for next year and beyond? Or would that just be kicking the can down the road?
Said Chaney, asked about how the Bulldogs might deploy Fields in the Sugar Bowl: “We haven’t changed anything from what we’ve been doing throughout the season. I’ll say that.”
We say again: There’s no good way to handle two quarterbacks if the No. 2 guy believes he’s good enough to start. Clemson was 16-2 with Kelly Bryant, but he never attended another practice after it was announced the Tigers had elevated freshman Trevor Lawrence to No. 1. (Bryant is headed for Missouri as a graduate transfer.) Tagovailoa might well have landed at USC had the halftime score against Georgia been 13-7. Heck, Fromm himself might be elsewhere if Jacob Eason hadn’t gotten hurt on the third series against Appalachian State.
There’s no wrong in any of this. Fields wants to start. Smart wants to win, and Fromm has proved he’s a collegiate quarterback of the first rank. The lasting memory of Fields’ freshman season, alas, won’t be of anything he did against UMass but of him being swarmed on Smart’s fake punt, a decision largely responsible for Georgia being here, as opposed to gracing the playoff.
There was never going to be a way for Fromm and Fields to be happy, and one of them isn’t. It’s hard to imagine anything happening against Texas to change that. Then again, not many would have predicted that Tua Tagovailoa, who didn’t start a game as a Bama freshman, would now be considered maybe the greatest player in the history of the nation’s greatest program.