The question now is whether to play them, or any of the slightly injured regulars who are expected to assume significant roles this fall. The No. 1-ranked Bulldogs play host to Tennessee-Martin on Saturday (6 p.m., SEC Network+) at Sanford Stadium. The visiting Skyhawks are an FCS team from the Ohio Valley Conference. Accordingly, Georgia probably could name the final score of the game with or without its first-stringers.
At this juncture, though, it remains uncertain whether the Bulldogs will take an all-hands-on-deck approach to an opener against an overmatched opponent or play it more conservatively with an eye cast toward a long and grueling season. Georgia has several starters who might be considered worthy of protection.
Flanker Ladd McConkey is nursing a back issue, cornerback Kamari Lassiter is dealing with a sprained foot and inside linebacker Smael Mondon, who is almost fully recovered from a foot fracture sustained in the spring, joined the team for workouts on Woodruff Practice Fields this week. After an extremely physical – and hotter than usual – preseason camp, many other Bulldogs are dealing with various twists, sprains and bruises.
Georgia also will be a huge favorite when it plays host to Ball State in Week 2. The Bulldogs could choose to approach the season’s first two weeks like an NFL exhibition schedule. There are, after all, plenty of players to deploy before travel rosters will have to be reduced to 70 players for SEC play, which for Georgia begins against South Carolina on Sept. 16.
With Saturday’s opener coming against non-conference opponent, Georgia can dress as many players as it sees fit. Overall, the Bulldogs carry more than 100 players on their roster. However, at least 20 walk-ons have been with the team only since classes started Aug. 16.
“I mean, I can dress the entire roster if I want to,” Smart said Tuesday. “It’s just going to be a matter of (determining) how much room we have on the sideline. We’ll have some other games that we’ll have an opportunity to dress (walk-ons) for. We try to reward everybody by dressing at least one (game) during the year. Typically, we (dress) the guys that came to camp because they’ve been through the most practices, then try to get the guys that came out later when school started.”
These are radically different decisions than the Bulldogs had to make the past two seasons when Georgia opened against top-10 opponents away from Athens. What isn’t different, the Bulldogs insist, is the anticipation of finally getting to compete against somebody other than teammates.
“We don’t care who we play, we’re trying to win, we’re trying to dominate,” said junior safety Javon Bullard, who plans to play Saturday. “Whether that’s UT-Martin or the New England Patriots, we want to win, and that’s how we go into every game. … When we step between those lines, we want to dominate, that’s just what it is.”
Tennessee-Martin coach Jason Simpson, for one, doesn’t expect the Bulldogs to go easy on his team. The Skyhawks, OVC champions each of the past two seasons, play at least one of these kinds of games every season. Last year, they played Tennessee in Neyland Stadium. The Volunteers, who would rise to No. 1, won 65-24.
“You go there to compete,” said Simpson, the Skyhawks’ coach for the past 18 years. “The scoreboard’s unforgiving. It doesn’t say ‘this is a two-time national championship team and this is an OVC team.’”
Smart said he’s more interested in execution than outcomes. The Bulldogs will be breaking in a lot of first-time starters, including quarterback Carson Beck, two offensive tackles, an outside linebacker, an inside linebacker and possibly two or more defensive backs.
“I think procedurally,” Smart said of his mindset for opening games. “Discipline, (being) onside, cadence, turnovers, the little things that usually get you beat. … I do think first-game jitters exist. You want the players to get comfortable, to be able to go out there, cut loose and play and get the anxiety out of the way, the first hit out of the way.
“I want to play our brand of football, play really disciplined and not have a lot of penalties and sloppy mistakes.”