5 things to know about Georgia-Arkansas

Credit: UGA Sports

Credit: UGA Sports

ATHENS -- Not knowing. That’s what makes college football exciting.

It’s ever-changing. It’s cyclical. Players come and go every four years. Nowadays, they might even come and go every other month or so. You never can be sure what kind of product a school will put on the field.

Maybe that’s why there is so much anticipation surrounding the Georgia Bulldogs as they finally foray into the pandemic-delayed season Saturday against Arkansas (4 p.m., SEC Network). There remains high expectations, as the No. 4 national ranking indicates.

Here are five things to focus on as the Bulldogs embark on the great unknown:

1. Quarterback quandary

It will be a shock if D’Wan Mathis doesn’t start Saturday. The redshirt freshman quarterback most definitely will play, and likely will play a lot and probably will play first.

That makes for a wonderful chapter in what has been a dramatic and inspirational story. Bulldogs fans are aware of Mathis' journey from Ohio State commitment to Georgia signee to suddenly finding out that the sinus headache that wouldn’t go away was caused by a cyst in his brain that needed to be removed quickly.

Mathis is in the position he is because he has the strongest arm, the fastest legs and most playmaking ability of the four quarterbacks left to compete for the job after Jamie Newman bolted early this month. He also stands 6-foot-6 and reportedly is among the 10 fastest players on Georgia’s team.

Meanwhile, if things don’t go as well as hoped, the Bulldogs have a reliable option in JT Daniels waiting in the wings, as long as his knee holds up.

2. Monken factor

Adding to the intrigue of nine new starters on offense is a new coordinator calling the shots. Todd Monken comes to the Bulldogs from the NFL, but it’s his work in college, as head coach at Southern Miss and coordinator at Oklahoma State, that brought him and Georgia coach Kirby Smart together. Monken has developed his own version of the Air Raid Spread, and Smart wants him to install it for the Bulldogs, who have lacked the explosion on offense of the past three national champions (LSU, Clemson and Alabama).

With all the personnel turnover on offense, it’s probably as good a time as any. Only center Trey Hill and flanker Demetris Robertson are considered true returning starters from a unit that averaged 30.8 points per game last season, the fewest since Smart’s first season as coach.

But Monken said Georgia still has plenty to work with. Sophomore split end George Pickens is back after a 12-reception, 175-yard MVP performance in the Sugar Bowl. “D-Rob,” Kearis Jackson, Matt Landers and a few of the many freshmen Georgia brought in have impressed in camp.

And, as Monken points out, the run game is a big part of his spread concept. For that, Zamir White and James Cook are back.

3. Good to see ya, Sam

Sam Pittman left UGA right after SEC Championship game to accept the head coaching job at Arkansas and got busy forging a new path.

As fate would have it, the coronavirus intervened and turned college football upside down. That brought the Bulldogs and their former offensive line coach back together, but on opposite sides of the field.

Pittman’s Razorbacks haven’t won a conference game since 2017 and are in the early stages of a total rebuild. That’s why Georgia has been installed as 26-point favorite.

“Nervous? I would be lying to you if I didn’t say I was nervous,” Pittman said. “But I was nervous when I was O-line coach, too. Nervousness comes from just making sure you are prepared every way you can possibly be. … It being against Georgia, never in my wildest dreams when I took the job did I think Georgia would be the first opponent, but it is.”

There are some impressive things about the Hogs as well, such as four returning offensive linemen, a talented receiving corps, one of the SEC’s best running backs and an experienced transfer quarterback.

4. How 'bout that defense?

Georgia returns eight starters on a unit that led the nation in points allowed (12.6 pg), rushing allowed (74.6) and ranked eighth in total defense (275.7 ypg). LSU and its generational offense led by the NFL’s No. 1 draft pick was the only opponent to score more than 20 points on the Bulldogs.

The most impressive stat of all is this one: 36 defensive lettermen back who played 100 snaps or more last season. That’s a lot of experience. There has been less discussion about what is new on defense, and there’s a lot to like there.

Tackle Jalen Carter probably has generated more buzz than there has been about a freshman defender in a while. The 6-foot-3, 305-pound, 5-star signee played his way into the rotation, which is impressive given Georgia’s talent Georgia up front. There’s a similar sentiment for defensive back Jalen Kimber. And then there’s the maturation of many of young players, such as defensive end Travon Walker, inside linebacker Nakobe Dean and outside linebacker Nolan Smith.

Arkansas will unleash first-year offensive coordinator Kendal Briles. The son of Art Briles is considered one of the brightest minds in the game, and he has plenty to work with in Florida transfer Feleipe Franks at quarterback, senior running back Rakeem Boyd, receiver Treylon Burks and four returning starters on the line.

5. Who’s special?

So much will be new and different on special teams for the Bulldogs. It starts with new coordinator Scott Cochran, who not only hasn’t coached special teams, but hasn’t been an on-field assistant coach since 1998 at University High in Baton Rouge. Meanwhile, somebody has to step into the kicking shoes left behind by Rodrigo Blankenship. It looks like that will be freshman Jared Zirkel on placement kicks and walk-on Jack Podlesny on kickoffs.

There will be a lot of new personnel handling protection, coverage and returns as well. This is where Georgia’s recruiting could make a big difference. Signing seven 5-star prospects this year in what was judged the nation’s No. 1-ranked class means they can’t all earn a place on offense or defense. But many of the great Bulldogs of the past made their way onto the field via special teams, and there will be plenty of chances for that this season.