Five things to know as No. 1 Georgia seeks perfection vs. Georgia Tech

112021 Athens: Georgia quarterbacks JT Daniels and Stetson Bennett confer on the sidelines during the first half against Charleston Southern in a NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Athens.    “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”
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112021 Athens: Georgia quarterbacks JT Daniels and Stetson Bennett confer on the sidelines during the first half against Charleston Southern in a NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Athens. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

ATHENS – You may have heard Kirby Smart use his book metaphor a few times this season. Well, he used it again this week in reference to his No. 1-ranked Georgia Bulldogs (11-0) facing Georgia Tech (3-8) at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday (noon, ABC).

“It’s the next part, the next chapter, and what are they going to write about this chapter?” Smart said of his players. “I know our guys will be fired up and ready to go.”

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There wasn’t a lot of discussion in the Bulldogs’ camp this week about throwing out the records or “Clean Old-Fashioned Hate” or Tech-Georgia being one of the South’s oldest rivalries. At 114 games, the Bulldogs have played only Auburn more (125 times) since they started playing football in 1892. And the schools can’t even agree on the number of times played. Georgia does not count the two losses that occurred during World War II.

Yet, for the Bulldogs, it really doesn’t have anything to do with that stuff. This year, like few others, it is just about avoiding disaster and getting onto the next thing. That next thing is No. 3 Alabama in the SEC Championship game a week from Saturday.

Five things to consider about the Tech game:

Quarterback play

Senior quarterback Stetson Bennett is expected to get his eighth consecutive start and ninth overall. The only question is when and how much backup JT Daniels might play.

Daniels, who missed six games with a back injury and played very sparingly in two others, needs as much work as possible in case the Bulldogs have to turn to him during the postseason. While he returned to practice Oct. 18, Daniels’ work has been extremely limited in actual games.

After starting the opener against Clemson and playing the whole game, Daniels has been on the field with the Bulldogs during only six quarters since, and rarely has that been with the No. 1 offensive unit. Daniels’ only recent appearances came after the Bulldogs led Missouri 33-3 in the third quarter, and four possessions spanning the second and third quarters of Georgia’s 56-7 win over Charleston Southern (two TDs, two punts).

Daniels has remained efficient throughout. He entered the week averaging 144.4 yards passing with a 72.3 completion percentage, seven touchdowns and three interceptions.

Meanwhile, Bennett’s play has been exemplary. His quarterback rating of 163.73 ranks No. 8 in FBS and his yards per passing attempt (9.8) was tied for fifth nationally with Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker.

Perhaps even more important is that the Bulldogs’ run game improved. They’ve averaged 215.4 yards per game since Bennett took over, compared with 177.3 in the previous four games.

Offensive improvement

While Georgia has been solid on offense this season, averaging 40.3 points and 440 yards per game, Smart said this week he seeks improvement from that unit. A closer look reveals why.

The Bulldogs may have fattened up on overmatched opponents. They scored 174 of their 443 points -- or 39% -- against Charleston Southern, Alabama-Birmingham and Vanderbilt. Against of the rest of its opponents, Georgia is averaging 33.6 points.

Tech’s defense won’t necessarily represent a step up. In fact, unless the Yellow Jackets show marked improvement, the competition might actually go down a notch.

Tech’s defense ranks 113th in FBS in yards-per-play (6.5). That actually represents a regression for the Jackets from the first two seasons under coach Geoff Collins, when they were 85th in 2019 (5.8) and 79th in 2020 (5.9).

Tech’s scoring defense has been about the same. They’re tied for 106th this year (32.5 ppg).

About those Jackets

This is the Jackets’ third season under Collins. They are 3-8 this season after logging 3-9 and 3-7 seasons his first two.

Smart said he can see Tech is improved even if its record doesn’t reflect it.

“The biggest thing is they’ve got more talent to me,” Smart said. “They’ve stacked some good players that have come back to the city of Atlanta. When you look across the board, a lot of kids on that team went to go play somewhere else, kids that all of us recruited, and they have come back. They’ve had some key injuries. They’ve had injuries at the quarterback position; it’s been in-and-out, back-and-forth. But they always do a good job in the kicking game. Geoff always takes part in that. That’s a part that he takes a big role in, and you can see his influence in terms of the way they play in all phases. They played a tough schedule, as well. I have a lot of respect for how they play.”

On offense, the Jackets are led by running back Jahmyr Gibbs, who has 745 yards rushing and four touchdowns. They have played two quarterbacks in Jeff Sims and Jordan Yates. Junior linebacker Quez Jackson leads the team with 98 tackles.

Welcome back

Georgia’s roster continues to trend toward improved health as the end of the regular season approaches. In fact, the Tech game should represent the Bulldogs’ healthiest of the season.

Starting left tackle Jamaree Salyer returned to practice this week after missing the past three games with a sprained foot and is cleared to play. Slot receiver Dominick Blaylock returned last week and got his first action in two seasons with two catches for 11 yards against Charleston Southern. A hamstring injury slowed his return from a second ACL rehabilitation.

Even split end George Pickens, out since undergoing ACL surgery in April, also returned to practice this week. However, he has not been cleared for a game.

The most troublesome issue facing the Bulldogs ahead of Saturday’s game is the status of starting safety Christopher Smith. Smith incurred some sort of knee injury in practice last week and showed up for Charleston Southern on crutches and in a brace. Smart said the Bulldogs’ were “hopeful” of Smith returning this week, but indications are he was unable to practice.

Unblemished record

Georgia is aiming to become the fourth team in school history to finish the regular season with a perfect record.

Vince Dooley’s 1980 national championship was the last to go 12-0. That was when they played an 11-game regular season. The Bulldogs got their 12th victory with a 17-10 win over Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl.

The school record for wins in a season is 13. Georgia has done that twice, in 2002 under Mark Richt (13-1) and in 2017 under Smart (13-1). A victory over the Jackets would represent the second-longest win streak in UGA history at 16 games in a row. Georgia won the last four games of the 2020 season and all 11 this year to get to 15. That ties the No. 2 streaks forged over the span of the 1979-81 seasons and the 1941-42 seasons.

The Bulldogs will need to beat Tech and Alabama in the SEC Championship game to match the program’s longest win streak of 17 games. That run started with a 34-7 win over Chattanooga on Nov. 13, 1945, and lasted until the second game of the 1947 season, when the Bulldogs lost on the road to North Carolina, 14-7.

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