I figured Georgia would have the second-best quarterback in the SEC this season. I didn’t know Joe Burrow was hidden in plain sight at LSU.
The Heisman Trophy winner has taken the Tigers to the College Football Playoff Championship game Jan. 13. Jake Fromm took the Bulldogs to an SEC East championship and Sugar Bowl victory. That ain’t bad, but it wasn’t the College Football Playoff, which means it wasn’t good enough for Georgia.
Now I believe Georgia will have the SEC’s best QB in 2020. That’s assuming Fromm doesn’t declare for the NFL draft, and that there’s not another Burrow out there ready to become a star. It also supposes that Fromm’s late-season regression was an outlier. That’s a reasonable view based on his track record before then and his fine performance against Baylor in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day.
Georgia finished No. 5 in the final 2019 College Football Playoff rankings. With Fromm back in 2020, they’ll finish in the top four. Quarterback play isn’t the only thing. Recent seasons have shown that, for CFP contenders, it’s the most important thing.
LSU coach Ed Orgeron realized he had a special talent with Burrow and opened up his offense to take advantage. Justin Fields left Georgia and took Ohio State to the CFP. Jalen Hurts departed Alabama to do the same for Oklahoma. Clemson’s run to the CFP title game didn’t take off until quarterback Trevor Lawrence shook off his slow start.
Lawrence and Fields aren’t draft-eligible. The other two CFP teams will need new QBs. Burrow and Hurts are off to the NFL. Alabama junior QB Tua Tagovailoa probably is going pro, too. No. 6 Oregon bids farewell to quarterback Justin Herbert, another top NFL prospect.
That’s potentially four QBs no longer in Georgia’s path to the CFP. With Fromm, the Bulldogs should be clear favorites to win the SEC East again. They’d be a good bet to win the league title and earn a playoff bid. Without Fromm, Georgia falls back to the pack. There’s no experienced option behind him, and the hot QB transfer market of 2019 was an anomaly.
Florida, the main threat to Georgia in the East, may have something in quarterback Kyle Trask. Auburn QB Bo Nix had a promising, uneven freshman season. One of those two could make a big leap in their second season as a starter. I still say if Fromm returns, Georgia would be the SEC contender with the best QB.
That calculation changes if Tagovailoa decides to return or if backup Mac Jones really is as good as he looked in the Citrus Bowl. Tagovailoa’s blue-chip brother, Taulia, also will get his shot. But whichever quarterback Nick Saban picks will be operating an offense that might be drained of its best talent.
Three of Alabama’s junior wide receivers are top draft prospects: Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs and Devonta Smith. Junior running back Najee Harris is another one. There’s always someone waiting at Bama -- sophomore wide receiver Jaylen Waddle already has arrived -- but that’s still a lot of talent that potentially is out the door.
The Bulldogs will have their own holes to fill if Fromm comes back. They waited all season for another big-play wide receiver to emerge behind grad transfer Lawrence Cager. Sometimes that was freshman George Pickens. Next season it will have to be him most of the time, with one or two other blue-chip recruits from the past two classes.
Junior tailback D’Andre Swift also might declare for the NFL draft. No. 2 tailback Brian Herrien is a senior. The offensive line loses two starters to the NFL. Georgia’s two All-SEC defenders, safety J.R. Reed and tackle Tyler Clark, are headed for the NFL.
It was a good sign for Georgia that several young players made an impact in the Sugar Bowl. That included Zamir White, the top running back recruit who missed 2018 with a knee injury (he looked to have more shake in this game). Another redshirt freshman, Azeez Ojulari, had a sack-strip for a key turnover.
Other young Bulldogs should emerge as consistent players in 2020. Coach Kirby Smart has built a foundation of talent that rivals any in the country: four consecutive recruiting classes ranked among the top five nationally. Some of Georgia’s top signees were wide receivers. There will be no excuses for Smart if Fromm comes back and Georgia still can’t field a more explosive offense.
It’s up to Smart and his assistants to get the most out of the players. After the Sugar Bowl, Smart said it’s up to those players to avoid complacency.
“When you’re not hungry, you become average,” Smart said. “And some of that, I think, has affected us in the past.”
The Bulldogs should be starving for the 2020 season. They slipped from losing a close national title game to Alabama, to losing a close SEC Championship game to Bama, to getting dominated in the SEC Championship game by LSU. Each time the Bulldogs were bested by the SEC’s best QB (it was their bad luck that the Crimson Tide had two of them).
If Fromm decides to return and Tagovailoa doesn’t, then Georgia will have the league’s best QB in 2020. That’s not a call for Fromm to stay in Athens. Can’t blame him if he’s finished playing for no salary. It is an acknowledgement that Georgia’s 2020 CFP hopes ride on Fromm’s decision.