COVID-19 cancellation may be blessing for battered Georgia

Georgia coach Kirby Smart on the field with D’Wan Mathis and James Cook in the final minutes of the game against the Florida Gators Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Jacksonville, Fla.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart on the field with D’Wan Mathis and James Cook in the final minutes of the game against the Florida Gators Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Jacksonville, Fla.

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Georgia coach Kirby Smart was understandably disappointed that Saturday’s game against Missouri was postponed. But he also could not discount some inherent advantages to his battered and humbled team being handed an unexpected bye week.

The SEC announced Wednesday that Saturday’s scheduled noon game between the Bulldogs (4-2) and the Tigers (2-3) had to be called off because of COVID-19 complications within the Missouri football program. Missouri football coach Eli Drinkwitz revealed that a second player tested positive Tuesday for the highly infectious disease caused by the coronavirus, but that contact tracing was going to require quarantines for numerous other players, including a concentration among one position group in particular. He would not share which group.

Georgia’s team, meanwhile, has remained relatively unaffected by the virus. However, the Bulldogs currently are inundated by traditional football injuries, not to mention vexed by recent offensive and defensive struggles that have seen them lose two of their past three games by an average of 16.5 points.

Suffice it to say, Georgia can make good use of the time.

“We’ve got a plan to continue to work on us,” coach Kirby Smart said on the SEC coaches' teleconference call, which was conducted just minutes after the league’s announcement. “We have plenty to work on, and the good thing is we get to do some things against each other and compete. It’s always better when you get to do that rather than working on an opponent all week.”

The SEC is considering whether the Georgia-Missouri could be played Dec. 19. That is, of course, the current date for the SEC Championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Bulldogs are expected to miss the title game for the first time in four years after losing to Florida 44-28 on Saturday. That effectively gives the Gators (4-1) a two-game lead in the Eastern Division since they would also hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

But all that’s assuming that all 14 SEC teams are able to play their 10 regular-season games. Georgia-Missouri is the fourth of this weekend’s SEC matchups that was postponed because of COVID-19 issues, joining Alabama at LSU, Texas A&M at Tennessee and Auburn at Mississippi State.

Florida-LSU and Missouri-Vanderbilt also had to be postponed earlier this season, and are scheduled to be played on Dec. 12, the SEC’s designated make-up date when it released its delayed-start, conference-only schedule in August. That’s why the Tigers don’t have an open date before Dec. 19.

Georgia, meanwhile, has been relatively unaffected by the virus.

“We’ve been fortunate,” Smart said. "(Team doctor) Ron (Courson) had a good plan, and I can’t say that folks haven’t had a good plan. A lot of it is out of your control other than education and precaution. I go back, again, it’s not a crazy amount. It’s the contact tracing and being safe is what is really knocking the games out. It’s not just the COVID-19 positives. It seems to me that those are not high in number, but those are higher than they were the last four to five weeks.”

Commissioner Greg Sankey, speaking to media via conference call Wednesday, concurred. He said the cancellations are more a reflection of caution rather than the imminent danger of the coronavirus pandemic. The SEC’s testing clearinghouse has shown only a .005% infection rate in football, according to Sankey. But those numbers get magnified because of the league’s contact-tracing protocol, which calls for 10-day quarantines for anyone who has been within six feet of an infected individual for 15 minutes or more.

“Candidly, the numbers around contact tracing have emerged as one of our biggest challenges to playing,” Sankey said.

Whenever Georgia and Missouri finally play, Smart said the Bulldogs will be ready.

“We were, for the most part, almost through with the entire game plan on Missouri,” Smart said Wednesday. “So, we’re just a little ahead if we get to play at the end of the year. I know that the SEC is evaluating when the game will be rescheduled, and that’s kind of out of our hands.”

UGA quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) is taken down at the line of scrimmage by Gators defensive lineman Kyree Campbell (55) during Saturday's Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville, Fla. (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)
UGA quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) is taken down at the line of scrimmage by Gators defensive lineman Kyree Campbell (55) during Saturday's Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville, Fla. (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

The Bulldogs are in the midst of quarterback competition as starter Stetson Bennett has been unable to practice during the first part of the week because of a sprained AC joint in his right, throwing shoulder. Redshirt freshman D’Wan Mathis, sophomore JT Daniels and freshman Carson Beck had been rotating snaps with the No. 1 offense, according to Smart.

Additional time to assess the quarterback situation might be a blessing in disguise for the Bulldogs.

“If you look across the country, it’s hard to prepare two people for a week of a game,” Smart said. “It’s easy to rep a lot of guys in off-weeks; it’s easy to rep a lot of guys in camp; but we have had a lot of guys to rep.”

Smart said Georgia coaches started hearing Missouri might be experiencing COVID-19 issues Monday. SEC protocols require teams to tests for the virus on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. The Tigers got one positive test back after each session.

Smart then was advised of the postponement only minutes before the news was released by the SEC office.

“I’m finding out about as fast as you are,” Smart told reporters. “Mental agility is definitely the definition of 2020, which we talked to our team about earlier in the season. It’s one of those deals where, you find out, you have a plan for plan A and a plan for plan B, and we have obviously been working that way all year. We had said if a game gets canceled, what we would do, and that’s having a plan for it. As we found out yesterday and the day before that Missouri was having complications, we got a plan (together) to continue to work on us.”

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