Uncertainty reigns as Georgia heads to New Orleans

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Here's a look at the scores and schedule for the 2019 Georgia Bulldogs.

The Georgia Bulldogs will land at Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans this afternoon. They’ll arrive with many questions.

Those start with, who’s going to play in the Sugar Bowl?

The No. 5 Bulldogs (11-2) already know of several players without whom they’ll have to face the No. 7-ranked Baylor Bears (11-2) on Jan. 1 (8:45 p.m., ESPN), and those won’t be small voids to fill. Starting offensive tackles Andrew Thomas, a junior and consensus All-American, and 6-foot-7, 340-pound third-year sophomore Isaiah Wilson, have declared for the NFL Draft and opted to skip the bowl game to focus on their training.

“Anytime you lose two, one’s probably a first-round pick and one a potential first-round pick, it’s tough. Right?” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “But those kids have an opportunity to go do something they wanted to do all their lives.”

There also are questions about other draft-eligible underclassmen, including quarterback Jake Fromm, running back D’Andre Swift and left guard Solomon Kindley.

Swift, who most assume will leave, is the only one to have commented publicly. He said he would wait “until after the bowl” to make a decision on his continued college eligibility. Whether that includes playing in the game is unclear. A shoulder injury limited Swift to only five touches – two runs and three pass receptions – in the SEC Championship game Dec. 7, but Smart said Swift has been participating in Georgia’s practices in Athens.

Fromm probably is the greatest mystery. His draft projections are all over the board. He has been listed anywhere from a late first-rounder to the 161st pick. But while Fromm has had a difficult finish to his junior season (47 completion percentage over the past five games), he still commands respect from some of the most savvy draft experts.

“I think he gets the worst rap of any of the quarterbacks because he’s one of the smarter quarterbacks I’ve ever been around,” ESPN’s Todd McShay said recently on a podcast. “He has great anticipation. Everyone I talk to is like, ‘He needs to go back to school. You know, he really regressed this year.’ You know what, do me a favor and study it before you bother me with your opinion. … I would argue he’s played just as well this year as the past couple of years. It’s just that when you don’t have anything around you and you’re going against defenses playing lights out, you know, the whole equation changes.”

In any case, Fromm is expected to play in the Sugar Bowl. Meanwhile, junior Ben Cleveland, a part-time starter at right guard, is expected to miss the game because of academic-eligibility issues. The availability of running back James Cook is unknown beyond Smart’s comment that the discipline for Cook’s early-December arrest on traffic charges was “being handled internally.”

No other Georgia players have announced or intimated that they might miss the bowl. However, it wasn't until the Bulldogs landed at the New Orleans airport last year that the public learned that senior cornerback Deandre Baker decided not to play in the game.

There are not any seniors on Georgia’s roster this year who carry similar first-round projections to Baker (who was drafted at the end of the first round). However, All-American safety J.R. Reed, a graduate, and senior defensive tackle Tyler Clark are expected to be drafted. Reed has said he plans to play in the bowl. Clark has not been available to comment.

That’s the dynamic surrounding Georgia’s football team heading into the Sugar Bowl for a second consecutive year. As demonstrated last Jan. 1 when the Bulldogs lost to Texas 28-21, roster ingress/egress can be distracting. In addition to Baker’s situation, UGA brought quarterback Justin Fields to New Orleans, even though it already was known that he had entered the transfer portal. Between that and the team’s disappointment over falling short of the College Football Playoff, the Bulldogs’ performance seemed to suffer.

Smart seems determined to avoid a similar fate against the Bears, who not only aren’t dealing with roster distractions, but are genuinely excited about playing in the Sugar Bowl. It’s Baylor’s first appearance in the bowl game since 1957, and the Bears are only three years removed from a 1-11 season. That followed a sexual-assault scandal that brought down former coach Art Briles, several athletic administrators as well as the school president.

“This is a big deal to Baylor,” said John Werner, who covers the Bears for the Waco Tribune-Herald. “Nobody thought they’d be here this year. They will be fired up.”

Baylor has only one underclassmen expected to attract significant pro-football attention, and that’s junior defensive lineman James Lynch. The 6-foot-4, 295-pound tackle, who leads the Big 12 in sacks with 12.5, said he fully intends to play.

Lynch anchors the Big 12’s best defense, which features seven seniors and ranked eighth nationally with 43 sacks. They’ll represent the ultimate challenge for Georgia’s offensive line, which definitely won’t be at full strength.

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