“As big and as cool as this game is, it’s Week 1,” said Daniels, a junior from Irvine, Calif. “You could beat Clemson by 100 and lose every game the rest of the season or Clemson could win by 100 and then everything goes our way and we win the SEC. … I think it’s an awesome stage, great competition. It’s a great way to see where we’re at and what we need to improve on and I’m sure Clemson will see it the same way and we’ll go from there.”
The strategic matchup between Georgia’s Daniels-led offense and Clemson’s defense is highly intriguing, to say the least. The Tigers have 10 starters returning from a defense that led the nation in quarterback sacks a year ago. Meanwhile, Daniels was sacked 10 times in the only four games he played for the Bulldogs at the end of last season.
Then again, Georgia was 4-0 in those games as Daniels averaged 307.8 yards a game with 10 touchdowns against just two interceptions. His passer rating against the blitz was 141.8, according to Pro Football Focus, or the best of all returning quarterbacks in college football.
The wits-matching therein should make for a high stakes game of football chess between Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken and Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables.
“They’re probably one of the best defenses I’ve ever seen in terms of returning starts and numbers of games played,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said Monday. “The volume of experience is unmatched anywhere, any time, and I’ve been in college football a long time.”
The Bulldogs will combat that with a quarterback who has played in three SEC contests and a bowl game before socially-distanced crowds maxing out at 20,000. Saturday’s game at 75,412-seat Bank of America has been sold out and slated for ABC’s primetime slot for months. But it’s not like Daniels hasn’t played in big games before.
Daniels started every game his freshman year at Southern Cal. That included the third one of his career, which came on the road against Texas. It wasn’t great. The Trojans lost 37-14. But Daniels didn’t exactly spit the bit playing before 103,507. He completed 30-of-48 passes for 322 yards and had an interception for an undermanned USC team that would finish 5-7.
“That’s the most nervous I’ve ever been,” Daniels confessed Monday. “That was my first time ever experiencing crowd noise. It was unbelievable. But after the first could plays, you calm down.”
Daniels said he’s much better-suited to face such an environment now as a fourth-year junior.
“Understanding what nerves are, it’s just your body’s response to doing something that means something to you and matters,” Daniels said. “Just breathe through it and be excited for the moment.”
Daniels’ teammates certainly are confident in his ability to handle the moment. They witnessed up close how the 6-foot-3, 215-pound transfer bided his time through injury rehabilitation and a long stint on the scout team to surface as the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback in the seventh game of last season.
Now Daniels has had most of a calendar year to operate as Georgia’s QB1. Other than a 10-day trip back home to California with nine of his teammates, every other minute of Daniels’ life has been spent in Athens, most of them in and around the Butts-Mehre football complex.
It’s there that Daniels has earned the trust of teammates.
“I see it every day in practice,” junior right end John FitzPatrick said. “He’s prepared in walk-throughs, in meetings and then come practice time. And he shows it on the field. His confidence shows out there. He has swagger and confidence and he leads the team in the right direction.”
There certainly is a belief in the world of sports marketing. Daniels has been one of the big winners in the first year of NIL. Since the NCAA waived its amateurism rules in July, Everett Sports Marketing (ESM) has brokered hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of deals on his behalf. At every turn, Daniels has made a point to negotiate something for his teammates. They’re all, for instance, getting pullovers from Rhoback.
That’s some heavy swag for a quarterback who has taken only 267 snaps at Georgia. But in “JTD” the Bulldogs believe.
“I’m really confident in JT’s preparation,” Smart said. “(NIL) really hasn’t been a distraction for JT. He’s got a single-minded focus all the time on being the best leader that he can for us.”
“If a deal makes sense and it’s not a time factor and it’s not going to take my attention away from anything that matters, then we do it,” Daniels said. “That’s how I’ve been and that’s how I’ll continue to do it. I’m really focused on football. … Management handles that whole thing for me. I’m not focused on any of that anymore.”
That all these riches have come Daniels’ way without ever playing in a game the magnitude of which he will Saturday night is the astounding part. Imagine what might happen if he plays a major role in upsetting a Clemson team that enters Saturday’s game in Charlotte as three-point favorite.
“I’m extremely confident in his preparation and his focus,” Smart said. “That’s not a concern for me. The concern is who we have to block, the players around JT. You know, everybody puts this on the shoulders of the quarterback, but so much of the outcome is (dependent) on how the players play around him.”