Kirby Smart: College football ‘needs to fix this’

Georgia quarterback Gunner Stockton (14) runs for yards during the fourth quarter against the Florida State during Georgia’s 63-3 win in the Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium, Saturday, Dec. 30, 2023, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Georgia quarterback Gunner Stockton (14) runs for yards during the fourth quarter against the Florida State during Georgia’s 63-3 win in the Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium, Saturday, Dec. 30, 2023, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Kirby Smart typically doesn’t offer strong opinions in public. He did on Saturday.

After his sixth-ranked Georgia Bulldogs annihilated No. 5 Florida State 63-3 in the Orange Bowl Saturday night, he stood on the proverbial stump with a megaphone.

“Let me say something,” he offered without prompting at the end of his 20-minute postgame press conference at Hard Rock Stadium. “I may be wrong here and maybe this will be a bad soundbyte, but people need to see what happened tonight and they need to fix this. It needs to be fixed. It’s very unfortunate that (FSU), who has a good team and a good football program, is in the position they’re in. Everybody can say it’s their fault and it’s their own problem, all right? And everybody can say we had our guys and they didn’t have our guys. I can listen to all that. But college football has got to decide what they want.”

It wasn’t exactly a drop-mic moment, but it came from a three-minute diatribe the Bulldogs’ eighth-year coach went on at the end of the postgame question-and-answer session that also involved players Kendall Milton and Kamari Lassiter. He dove-tailed from college football’s problems into what was right about Milton and Lassiter, both of who chose to opt-in rather than opt-out for the Orange Bowl.

The primary difference in the Seminoles and the Bulldogs in Saturday’s game was at least 24 FSU players either opted out due to the inherent risks to their prospective NFL careers or to enter the transfer. But Georgia dealt with some of those issues as well. About 20 Bulldogs have entered the portal since it opened on Dec. 4, with more expected to join before the transfer window closes on Jan. 3.

The difference was the roles the departees played before they left. For the Bulldogs it mostly was players who didn’t play prominent roles. For FSU, it was seemingly everybody who did. Twelve Seminole starters did not participate. A couple of those, including star quarterback Jordan Travis, were sidelined with injuries.

The reserves who needed to step up in their absence simply weren’t up to the task.

“I take full ownership for all things that happened on that field tonight,” FSU coach Mike Norvell said, choking back emotion. “We have plenty of opportunities to grow.”

There probably would have been far fewer opt-outs for both teams had they been included in the College Football Playoff. Both would have been had the 12-team playoff began this year. But, ironically, FSU and its ACC brethren formed an alliance with two other leagues to protest the expansion, which delayed it a year.

Next year, the playoff officially expands to 12 teams. But for the other 121 teams that don’t get in, the portal and opting-out of bowl games will continue to be a debilitating issue for college football’s postseason.

“I know things are going to change next year,” Smart said from the postgame podium. “You know what? There’s going to still be bowl games outside of those. People got to decide what they want and what they really want to get out of it, because it’s really unfortunate for those kids on that sideline that had to play in that game that didn’t have their full arsenal, and it affected the game, 100 percent.”

The difference was depth and attitude. Georgia was much better on both.

Here are five more things we learned from Saturday’s game:

Bowers’ farewell

It turned out that Brock Bowers played his last game as a Bulldog in the SEC Championship game on Dec. 2.

Georgia went to great lengths to keep that a mystery. The Bulldogs bothered to put its star tight end on display during media viewing at their final Orange Bowl practice on Friday. But Bowers did not dress out Saturday and wasn’t even on the field with his teammates for pregame warmups.

Whether the late-week ruse had any effect on the game’s outcome is unclear. But Smart said his postseason presence did.

“The impact he had over the last 30 days was tremendous,” Smart said. “He came out the SEC Championship game really beat-up and banged-up. But he did all kinds of work to get healed and get healthy … went to every single practice and all the meetings.”

Sophomore Oscar Delp got his fourth start of the season at tight end and finished with three catches for 31 yards. Freshman Lawson Luckie caught the second pass of his career and first for a touchdown, a 4-yarder. Redshirt freshman Pearce Spurlin also played some snaps.

They’ll all have quite the legacy to live up to in Bowers’ absence. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound junior from Napa, Calif., will head to the NFL Draft as an inarguable member of the Bulldogs’ mythical Mt. Rushmore of football greats. A back-to-back winner of the John Mackey Award for the nation’s top tight end, Bowers joined Herschel Walker and David Pollack as the only three-time All-Americans in Georgia history. In 40 games and 37 starts, Bowers’ college career saw him catch 175 passes for 2,538 yards and 26 touchdowns, which are fifth and second, respectively, on Georgia’s career lists. He had another 193 yards and five touchdowns rushing the football.

Beat-up Bulldogs

Bowers was one of several players that were sidelined with injuries. Junior offensive tackle Amarius Mims (ankle), redshirt freshman cornerback Julian Humphrey (shoulder) and inside linebacker Smael Mondon (foot) also didn’t play.

Mims went through the same charade as Bowers on Friday. The 6-7, 340-pound junior also is expected to enter the NFL Draft as a potential first-round prospect. That’s fairly incredible considering he played in only 28 of Georgia’s 44 games the last three seasons with eight starts.

Mondon’s absence meant the Bulldogs were without both their starting inside linebackers of the last two seasons. Jamon Dumas-Johnson, who had been out with a broken forearm, transferred to Kentucky. Mondon a 6-3, 225-pound junior was an All-SEC selection after recording 68 tackles this season. Freshman CJ Allen and sophomore Jalon Walker started and finished with six and four tackles, respectively.

Also sidelined with injuries Saturday were split end Rara Thomas, defensive lineman Christen Miller and outside linebacker Damon Wilson.

Roster management

Now that the season is over, Smart and his staff will turn their attention to roster management. And there’s a lot of managing left to do.

As things stood when the Bulldogs departed Hard Rock Stadium, they were well over the NCAA’s 85 scholarship limit. Unofficially, they look to be at about 91.

The Bulldogs already have seen about 20 players go into the transfer portal. At least 18 of them held scholarships. Along with the 28 players Georgia signed in December plus the four players that came in via the portal, that leaves the Dogs with a net gain of 14. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs likely aren’t done in the portal or signing high school players. So, more attrition is imminent.

Some of that is expected to come naturally in the form of seniors and juniors entering the NFL Draft. The deadline for underclassmen to submit their names is Jan. 15. Most are expected to make decisions known well before that.

At least three juniors are expected to be in that number: Bowers, Mims and cornerback Kamari Lassiter. In fact, Smart said he advised Lassiter and his mother in a meeting to move on and skip the bowl due to receiving a consensus first/second-round evaluation.

“He called me two days later and said, ‘Coach, I can’t do it. I want to be out there. I want to play with my guys. I think he did it against his mother’s will to be honest. But that’s who he is. This dude right here wants to play football. That’s all he cares about is playing football with his teammates. He ain’t worried about the next thing.”

Less predictable is what seniors might do who have the option of returning to play another year due to the “COVID year” eligibility option. Senior defensive linemen Warren Brinson and Nazir Stackhouse and offensive tackle Xavier Truss fall into that category.

Georgia’s players were instructed not to discuss those decisions after Saturday’s game. Stackhouse was the only one to provide a decision-day deadline.

“I haven’t made a decision yet, but y’all will know by the 3rd (of January),” said Stackhouse, a 6-3, 320-pound senior from Stone Mountain. “I’ll put it on social media.”

Beck for Heisman

If Georgia launches a Heisman Trophy campaign for rising senior quarterback Carson Beck next year, Dillon Bell will chair the committee. The sophomore receiver/running back from Houston stumped for his quarterback when asked about him after Saturday’s game.

“Heisman. I’m telling y’all, he’s going to win the Heisman,” Bell said about how Beck might do in his second season as Georgia’s starter. “We’ve been talking about this. He’s going to do it. We’re probably going to win another national championship. He reads defenses so well, he’s got an arm, he’s so confident. We all have faith and trust in Carson.”

Beck was quietly efficient on Saturday. Out of the game by halftime, he completed 13 of 18 passes for 203 yards and two touchdowns. Several of those completions went to Bell, who finished with a game-high 86 yards on five receptions.

In his first year as a starter, Beck finished second in Georgia history for single-season passing yards with 3,941 yards. He passed Aaron Murray (3,893 in 2012) but fell short of Stetson Bennett’s 4,127 yards in 2022. Beck also went 5-1 against Top 25 opponents.

“We’re capable of being explosive again like we were this year,” Beck said of next season. “There is so much we can improve on between now and next season. We’ll get back to working on it in about a week

How ‘bout them backups?

Georgia brought nearly 100 players to the Orange Bowl and, thanks to the complexion of the game, almost all of them played. Most notably were those who will be playing stepped-up roles next season.

Quarterback Gunner Stockton was one such player. The redshirt freshman from Rabun County played almost the entire second half and finished with 96 yards and two touchdowns on 6 of 10 passing and added another 46 yards on seven rushing attempts.

“I was really pleased,” Smart said of Stockton. “He was a kid who didn’t get a lot of reps during the year in terms of games. Brock (Vandagriff) got most of those. At halftime, I said, ‘look we’re going to go out there and all the starters are going to play and you’re going to run the 1 offense and you’re going to execute and play. The only way you’re going to get better at that position is to go play meaningful minutes and get time and thought it was big for in.”

It was big for Jackson Muschamp, too. A junior from Columbia, S.C., Muschamp is a walk-on who also happens to be the oldest son of defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. Jackson got to handle the Bulldogs’ final possession of the game and his 14-yard run on third-and-five was one of two third-down conversions he executed that helped Georgia run out the clock to end the game inside the Seminoles 25-yard line.

Muschamp’s run – which came on a pass play -- got a huge reaction from the Bulldogs’ sideline, especially his father.

“He was over with the defense and I said, ‘Coach Muschamp, you might want to step up here because Jackson is about to sprint out and throw a pass.’ And Coach Muschamp was like, ‘Oh, God. Oh, God.’ He sprinted out, they pulled it up and he stuck his foot in the ground and got the first down. He really looked good in that jersey number he had on, too.”

Muschamp wears 16, the same jersey number Smart wore when he played for the Bulldogs in the 1990s.