ATHENS – For the Georgia Bulldogs, Saturday truly is a homecoming.
Of course, UGA designates a home game every year to build the traditional homecoming festivities around, and the Mississippi State week has always been it for 2020. But in this particular case, it will have been 42 days since the Bulldogs played a football game in the friendly confines of Sanford Stadium.
In addition to the SEC’s pandemic remake of the schedule, this happened to be one of those years that the Bulldogs used one of its designated home dates to play Florida in Jacksonville. Of course, that didn’t turn out well this year, as Georgia lost a 44-28 decision to the Gators on Nov. 7.
As it turns out, that was the last time the now No. 13-ranked Bulldogs (4-2) played. Last week’s scheduled game against Missouri was postponed because of the Tigers’ personnel shortfalls related to coronavirus infections. It could be played Dec. 19, pending further postponements and shuffling.
Now Mississippi State comes to town, and it will arrive on wobbly tires. In their first year under coach Mike Leach, the Maroon Bulldogs (2-4) not only have struggled on the field, but also off it. Between the virus and opt-outs, it was questionable into this week whether they’d be able to meet the SEC’s roster minimums and field a team.
That’s one of several things to keep an eye on this weekend. Here are some others.
All indications point to the Bulldogs finally unveiling their mysterious transfer quarterback. JT Daniels, a midsummer transfer from USC, is expected not only to get his first start, but also to get his first playing time of this season.
The 6-foot-3, 210-pound sophomore was one of the highest-ranked prospects in the nation when he signed with the Trojans. He started every game for a rebuilding USC team as a 17-year-old freshman in 2018. But he missed nearly all of last season after suffering an ACL injury late in the first half of the season opener.
Reportedly, it has been the gimpy right knee that has kept Daniels out of action for the Bulldogs since enrolling at UGA this summer. Daniels received clearance to play from Georgia’s medical staff Sept. 29, but not only has he not played, he didn’t even take practice snaps with the No. 1 offense until last week.
Stetson Bennett, who started the past five games, sustained a shoulder sprain in the Florida game, but did return to practice this week and is cleared to play Saturday. He and first-game starter D’Wan Mathis have struggled in the past three games, and Georgia’s offense desperately seeks a spark.
If Daniels starts, it will be the first time since 2006 that the Bulldogs have started more than two quarterbacks in the same season. Injuries and ineffectiveness resulted in Matthew Stafford, Joe Cox and Joe Tereshinski all getting turns under center.
Opt-outs vs. opt-ins
Mississippi State has its own quarterback issues to resolve between graduate transfer K.J. Costello and freshman Will Rogers. Rogers got his first career start and played the whole way in the Bulldogs’ 24-17 win over Vanderbilt two weeks ago. But Costello started the first five games before suffering a minor knee injury in the Oct. 31 loss to Alabama. Both quarterbacks played in three games.
But that’s the least of the Bulldogs’ problems. Their biggest concern is being able to field a team Saturday.
In his first season in Starkville, Leach has had to deal with at least 17 opt-outs and/or transfers. And many of them have been front-line players, including All-SEC running back Kylin Hill and, this week, starting defensive tackle Nathan Pickering and safety Marcus Murphy.
So Mississippi State has even less margin than most teams when it comes to outages related to coronavirus exposure or injuries. As of Thursday evening, the Bulldogs were still on track to travel.
Though the Bulldogs have encountered numerous injuries, they have not had any players other than graduate transfer quarterback Jamie Newman in the preseason opt-out for the season.
Currently, senior linebacker Monty Rice (foot) is among Georgia’s NFL-caliber players who are continuing to play despite injuries. And fellow senior Richard LeCounte, who had a near-death experience in a motorcycle four weeks ago, said this week he intends to play again for the Bulldogs as soon as he can get medical clearance for shoulder, rib and foot soft-tissue injuries.
Meanwhile, Georgia is expecting to get some notable returnees from the injury list Saturday. Among them are starting wide receiver George Pickens, free safety Lewis Cine, running back/kick returner Kenny McIntosh and defensive tackle Warren Brinson.
Air Raid coming
Leach’s fabled “Air Raid” offense that had the SEC so excited about him joining the league in January has been a disappointment. But only after making a huge splash in the Bulldogs’ season opener.
Costello completed 60 percent of 60 passes for 623 yards and five touchdowns in what was at the time a stunning 44-34 upset over No. 6-ranked and defending national champion LSU in Baton Rouge. Since then, we’ve learned that the Tigers (2-3) lack the teeth that led them to an undefeated season in 2019. Meanwhile, Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom revealed the secret to shooting down Leach’s offense. The Razorbacks rushed three and dropped eight on the way to scoring a 21-14 victory in Starkville. That was the first of four mostly humiliating defeats for Mississippi State, culminating with a 41-0 loss to Alabama.
Smart said the Bulldogs won’t necessarily employ the same strategy, but Georgia’s defense is eager to get well after giving up 1,135 yards and 85 points in losses to Alabama and Florida.
Not long after becoming Georgia’s coach, Smart was asked to share his philosophy on the Bulldogs wearing black jerseys. He was on the other side of the phenomena as Alabama’s defensive coordinator in 2008 as the Crimson Tide infamously humiliated the black-jersey-wearing Bulldogs 41-30.
Smart said he thought it was fine to wear black on occasion since it was one of the school’s primary colors. But he added that they shouldn’t utilize them to create juice against a rival opponent. True to his word, Georgia wore black against Louisiana-Lafayette on Nov. 19 of that first season, and the Bulldogs won 35-21.
Georgia hasn’t worn them since, but Smart acknowledged that they were discussing the prospect for Saturday’s game. As of Thursday evening, no announcement had been made.
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