Finally back home, Georgia’s still up in air at quarterback

ATHENS — First things first: The Georgia Bulldogs are reasonably confident they’re going to play a game this Saturday. In the midst of this country’s pandemic and the SEC’s struggles to play football through it, that’s no small thing.

The bigger mystery at this point is who might play quarterback for the Bulldogs when they line up for their first offensive play in Sanford Stadium in six weeks against Mississippi State on Saturday (7:30 p.m., SEC Network). As we’ve come to expect, coach Kirby Smart wasn’t ready to unveil that bit of information, even if he knows the answer.

“No,” Smart said when asked if he knew yet who his starter will be. “The competition is going to continue throughout practice like it did last week.”

Popular opinion throughout the Bulldog Nation is that redshirt sophomore JT Daniels, a mid-summer transfer from Southern Cal, should get his first start at Georgia. Now eight weeks beyond gaining medical clearance from UGA doctors from the knee injury that wiped out his last season, Daniels should be healthy enough to play.

Meanwhile, since the Bulldogs’ only other quarterbacks to have played this season have struggled, and one of those is currently injured, could there be any better time to see what Georgia’s offense might look like under the guidance of an experienced transfer quarterback?

“You just try to make the best decision you can to give your team an opportunity to win,” Smart said during his weekly conference call on Monday. “That’s what we try to do with all our decisions, regardless if it’s quarterback or not.”

These are the facts as we know them:

  • Junior Stetson Bennett, who started the last five games, did not practice last week due to a sprained AC joint in his throwing shoulder. The time off this past weekend might facilitate a comeback. But, besides that, he has thrown six interceptions in Georgia’s last three games (against 3 TDs) while completing only 46 percent of his throws.
  • Redshirt freshman D’Wan Mathis has struggled even more, completing just 40 percent of his passes for 38 yards with three interceptions and one TD.
  • The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Daniels, who started 12 games at Southern Cal, has taken first-team snaps in practice for the first time in the past week.
  • True freshman Carson Beck continues to practice with the scout team.

Another dynamic to consider is Georgia’s overall situation. For the first time in four seasons, the Bulldogs (4-2) do not control their own destiny in the SEC East. With no clear path back to the SEC Championship game this year, perhaps they should focus on the future rather than the present.

Smart’s sentiments about navigating that “balance” were predictable.

“The balance is to win this football game,” Smart said. “That’s the only balance I know. We’re trying to attack each day. We’re developing our roster in practice and getting better during competitive reps, and we’re trying win football games. For us, that’s the ultimate goal.”

Getting better is the key therein. The Bulldogs enter the seventh game of this 10-game regular season ranked 60th in scoring (29 ppg), 76th in total offense (382 ypg) and 80th in passing (209.3 ypg).

The reasons for their struggles are plenty, beginning with losing nine starters and junior quarterback Jake Fromm from last year’s team, having transfer Jamie Newman opt out and then incurring a mass of injuries at the wide receiver position. Smart did share some good news Monday that star split end George Pickens (upper-body injury) “should be able to play” on Saturday.

But two months into the season’s delayed start, Georgia’s offense under first-year coordinator Todd Monken remains a work in progress.

“I wouldn’t say I’m frustrated; I’d say that I understand,” senior guard Ben Cleveland said of the offense’s lack of production. “We’re all humans. Nobody’s going to have a perfect game or call a perfect play. It’s all about finding that rhythm, finding that routine, just getting in a groove and making sure you keep on that track.”

That’s why Daniels getting a lot of work with the No. 1 offense in practice over the last week plus could be especially helpful to the prospect of him starting, or at least playing, against Mississippi State on Saturday.

Credit: UGA Sports

Credit: UGA Sports

“He’s really been focusing on learning the playbook, getting himself healthy and preparing himself for this moment,” Cleveland said. “I’ll say that about all our quarterbacks. They’ve all been prepared when their number was called and I don’t expect this to be any different.”

Even more important now is Georgia just getting to play a game. The Bulldogs will have not teed it up between the hedges for 42 days by the time Saturday’s kickoff rolls around and they played only three games in that span. Georgia was supposed to travel to Missouri last week before the Tigers announced that they wouldn’t have enough healthy players due to two COVID-19 infections, contact tracing and injuries.

Mississippi State (2-4) also called off what was supposed to be a home game against Auburn last Saturday. That was one of four postponements last Saturday. Texas A&M has already called off its home game against Ole Miss for this weekend.

Smart said recent communications with State have him “confident we’re going to be able to play.” The Maroon Bulldogs (2-4) had lost four in a row under first-year coach Mike Leach before getting a hard-fought 24-17 win over Vanderbilt on Nov. 7.

“Usually you have a good indication if a team is in the threshold (of needing to postpone) like last week,” Smart said. “We knew that Missouri was teetering on the brink and that each test they got back was going to be crucial to whether or not they could make the numbers. … We feel good about where they are and so we feel good about playing.”

Now if the Bulldogs could just generate some offense.