Georgia received a bid to play in the Allstate Sugar Bowl for the second straight year following Saturday night’s 37-10 loss to LSU in the SEC Championship game.
The arrangement for New Orleans New Year’s Day bowl required the Sugar to take the highest ranked SEC and Big 12 teams not in the playoffs. Georgia finished ranked No. 5 ahead of No. 9 Florida, which it beat in the regular season and has the same number of losses. The Bulldogs will face No. 7 Baylor, who lost to No. 6 Oklahoma 30-23 in overtime in the Big 12 championship game Saturday.
The question now is what kind of team will show up for Georgia in New Orleans this time around. Last year, the Bulldogs’ hearts clearly weren’t in it against Texas. They were still upset over being left out of the playoff after the close loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship. High NFL prospect Deandre Baker skipped the bowl rather than risk injury, disgruntled quarterback Justin Fields accompanied the team knowing he was going to transfer and several other marginally injured players did not play.
Georgia has at least two juniors in tackle Andrew Thomas and running back D’Andre Swift who could decide not to play.
“I haven’t made any decisions yet,” Thomas said. “That’s something I’ll be thinking about and talking to my parents and coaches about. But I think we’d be excited about the Sugar Bowl. Our senior class is one game away from being one of the two winningest classes is school history. That game will be huge for them.”
Regardless, the Bulldogs vow to be inspired.
“I know I’ll be motivated and I know I’ll challenge the best I can to motivate the other players,” sophomore noseguard Jordan Davis said. “We’ve just got to keep our priorities straight and end it well for the seniors.”
Some other considerations as the Bulldogs made the transition into bowl season:
There were the injuries, of which there were many, but coach Kirby Smart was bemoaning the overall play of the receivers for contributing significantly to the Bulldogs’ offensive woes this season.
Georgia was playing without its top wideout Lawrence Cager (ankle) on Saturday, as well as without freshman George Pickens for a half. Then they lost Dominick Blaylock (knee) and Kearis Jackson (ankle) to injuries during the game.
Still, no excuse, Smart said.
“The loss of those wideouts, the vertical threat, has probably hurt our team,” Smart said. “That's my responsibility, right, to replace them in recruiting, and we probably haven't done a good enough job of that.
Smart was just getting started on a rant.
“People can point at (quarterback) Jake (Fromm), they can point at (offensive coordinator James) Coley, they can point at me. I understand that,” Smart said. “But at the end of the day, it's not about that. It's what can we do to win each game individually? There's a lot of plays they run that we run. You watch the tape closely, they run the exact same plays we do. What's the difference right now? They have a lot more success with it. They have guys getting open one on one and catching the ball.
“I don't know how many drops we had tonight, but I feel like we had to have had five or six that you could say should have probably been caught. And we would have been more explosive if that was the case. I don't mean that in disrespect. If we had really good wideouts, we're more explosive. I don't know. One is on the bench in the first half, one is in a wheelchair, and two or three are in the NFL that came out early. That's just tough.”
Recruiting ramps up
Speaking of recruiting, that cranks up considerably in the next 10 days. The early signing period for football begins on Dec. 18. Between now and then, the Bulldogs will be all over the place, with Smart making as many as two dozen in-home visits.
Smart had bemoaned this time of year since the NCAA adopted the period two years ago. Even though UGA has fared exceptionally well, the compressed window of time compounded by playing in the conference championship each of the last three years has made it almost unmanageable for coaches.
"I don't think you can ever manage that," Smart said. "People have no idea what goes on the minute that SEC Championship game ends. I mean, you can meet for days and not deal with all the (logistics) because we're going to miss a week of recruiting. Everybody else is going to go out (while we're practicing for the SEC Championship game) and we literally have one week, five to six days, to go see every kid before they sign. That's absolutely crazy. That's crazy.”
Georgia usually wins the special teams area of most games, regardless of the outcome. It didn’t Saturday.
The usually reliable Rodrigo Blankenship had another tough day in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. He missed field goal tries of 52 and 37 yards.
“We always say 50-plus is 50-50,” Blankenship said. “I felt I hit a pretty clean ball. It had plenty of distance. It had just a little bit of hook that you hate to see and I’m going to have to work on that with drill work and iron that out.
“The second one, I think I was just overcompensating for the first one, thinking it was going to move left, I wanted to start it out right and let it work back to the middle and I started it a little too far right.”
Blankenship also kicked a squib kickoff out of bounds in the second half. He did make a 39-yard field goal in the game.
“I could definitely say I was off my game today,” said Blankenship, a graduate who will leave as Georgia’s all-time leading scorer, and No. 2 in SEC history. “Honestly, I felt like the squib there at the end summed up my day.”
LSU’s freshman kicker Cade York made field goals of 50, 41 and 28 yards, missed a 48-yard try and established an SEC Championship game record of 13 points by a kicker.
The Bulldogs held LSU’s offense 79 yards below their total offense average, 12 points below their scoring average and the Tigers had only six more first downs (26) than Georgia (20).
It was still one of the worst defensive outings of the season for the Bulldogs. But it was so close to being markedly better.
“We missed on a few plays that could have definitely changed the game,” junior safety Richard LeCounte said. “The fumble call was tough, we had (Joe) Burrow down in the backfield at least four or five times and he was able to extend the play. That definitely changed the game and made it hard on us.”
The Bulldogs believed that had recovered a fumble by LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire at the Tigers’ 14-yard line midway through the first quarter. The play was overturned by video review.
Burrow showed why is the Heisman Trophy favorite with several deft pocket escapes, including one in which he escaped the sacks of Travon Walker and Davis on the same play to throw a 71-yard pass late in the third quarter.
“I have a ton of respect for him, especially the way he makes plays,” Davis said. “He’s a good QB and it’ll be well deserved if he wins the Heisman. But we wanted to stop him.”
Said LeCounte: “I’ve seen a lot of great quarterbacks while I’ve been here. He’s a great athlete and all those things. He deserves credit. You seen him. He was playing ball out there.”
Backs of the future
It’s a foregone conclusion that Swift is going to turn pro after this season and Brian Herrien is graduating. That means the running back torch will get passed to James Cook, Zamir White and Kenny McIntosh.
Georgia fans got a good look at Cook and White on Saturday as they carried the ball 10 times between them for 28 yards. McIntosh, a true freshman, did not play.
“I feel like my coaches prepare me and Cook just to be ready whenever,” White said. “When your time comes, you just have to be ready to play. There’s always got to be room for improvement and we’ve just got to look at things we can get better at.”
Georgia has a commitment from another 5-star prospect, Kendall Milton of Clovis, Calif., who is expected to sign on Dec. 18.
White was also a 5-star signee but had ACL injuries on different knees in the year before his first season. He redshirted last year but says he’s healthy at this point.
“I'm back to 100 percent, I feel great, I’m not sore, I can cut off the left and off the right,” White said. “I feel great.”
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