No. 13 Georgia takes ‘opt-in’ mentality into Mississippi State game

Georgia linebacker Monty Rice (32) runs for a TD as Tennessee wide receiver Brandon Johnson (7) after Rice recovered a fumble which he caused during the second half of a football game on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, at Sanford Stadium in Athens. Georgia won 44-21. JOHN AMIS FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL- CONSTITUTION

Credit: John Amis

Credit: John Amis

Georgia linebacker Monty Rice (32) runs for a TD as Tennessee wide receiver Brandon Johnson (7) after Rice recovered a fumble which he caused during the second half of a football game on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, at Sanford Stadium in Athens. Georgia won 44-21. JOHN AMIS FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL- CONSTITUTION

ATHENS – There is a definite dichotomy between Georgia and Mississippi State, which plan to play a football game at Sanford Stadium on Saturday night. And it goes beyond their inverted records of 4-2 and 2-4, respectively.

By all accounts, the Bulldogs of Athens enter the SEC contest (7:30 p.m., SEC Network) completely bought in to what’s going on this fall. It has been the strangest of seasons, for sure, with sparsely attended games getting called off and rescheduled with regularity and nobody knowing for certain who might be available from week-to-week. But even with most of their year’s goals already dashed, Georgia’s players still seem committed to the cause of playing -- and winning – every game possible.

In contrast, the Bulldogs of Starkville seem to be fighting to keep their car on the track. Never mind the unrelenting effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which have on occasion penetrated their bubble. The bigger issue for first-year coach Mike Leach has been players voluntarily stepping away from competition.

And so, Saturday night’s contest will match the Opt-Ins versus the Opt-Outs. Not surprisingly, the Athens-based Opt-Ins are 25-point favorites.

“Our kids care about each other,” coach Kirby Smart said this week of his fourth Georgia team. “They want to win. They want to have a productive season and, at the end of the day, they want to improve their draft stock. How does that really look upon you that you opt out to go train and not play?”

Mississippi State deserves some praise, too. Indications are that the Bulldogs actually have fallen below the SEC’s recommended roster requirement, which is 53 scholarship players in total with minimums thresholds on the offensive and defensive lines and at quarterback. But they have chosen to play anyway, a prerogative the league left up to its membership.

“As opposed to nobody being allowed to play football -- because there’s been a lot of madness that goes along with all this stuff -- we’d much rather play than not play,” said Leach, who is reported to have lost 17 players.

Some of Mississippi State’s losses were to be expected. There is always attrition in a transition year such as it has had going from Joe Moorhead to Leach, who run very different systems requiring different skillsets. But, make no mistake about it, the Maroon Dogs’ talent level has been severely compromised with the continued loss of personnel. Standouts such as All-SEC running back Kylin Hill and defensive tackle Nathan Pickering are among those who have chosen to bag up their stuff for the season.

Smart contends it’s a bad idea, especially is the idea of training for the NFL draft. He thinks a lot of these players – especially those that aren’t sure-fire first-rounders -- are going to be negatively judged by NFL talent evaluators for effectively quitting on their teams.

“I think it’ll be measured when they get to the next level,” Smart said. “Some pundit or some critic would say, ‘Well, that’s easy for you to say; they need to be worried about their NFL careers.’ Well, I’ve learned those NFL careers are not for long. … If you’ve got a bona-fide first-rounder, that’s a completely different subject, but that’s not the case (for) a lot of these opt-outs.”

Georgia, by contrast, has had nothing of the sort. Well, other than the rather notable disappearance of graduate transfer quarterback Jamie Newman 3½ weeks before the season opener. The Bulldogs are still reeling from that one. But otherwise it does not appear any draft-eligible players are looking to bolt.

And Georgia has more of such players than most teams. At the moment, there are at least 23 players on the Bulldogs’ roster who reasonably could consider professional football after this season. Some of them are seniors, but many are also third-year sophomores and fourth-year juniors. Any player three years removed from high school graduation is eligible to enter the draft.

Further complicating the whole matter is the NCAA’s ruling that all players have been effectively granted another season of eligibility after this pandemic interrupted season. That’s as long as they and the school for which they play chooses to exercise it. To date at least, the scholarship cap of 85 remains in effect.

No player better epitomizes Georgia’s opt-in mentality than senior linebacker Monty Rice. The Bulldogs’ defensive captain is a certified NFL prospect. He actually explored the possibility of turning pro extensively last year after his junior season.

Not only did he choose to stick with the Georgia, he’s doing so on an injured foot, and has been all season. That has limited his practice time and requires daily treatment, before and after workouts.

“He’s hurting,” Smart said. “But he’s able to go on game days. That’s probably the most important thing, that he’s been able to function. If he didn’t think that he could play on game days, he wouldn’t be out there. … But (Rice) is improving his opportunity to go in the NFL because they have guys every week who are 90 percent or 85 percent. A guy goes out there and gives them what he can. He goes because they’ve got a 53-man roster and he might be the best player. For those guys, they’re going to think extremely highly of, at least according to the guys I’ve talked to in the NFL.”

Rice is expected to start Saturday for the sixth time in seven games this season. He is second on the team in tackles with 35, third in tackles for loss (3) and has a interception return for a touchdown to his credit.

“Oh, Monty is just Monty,” said senior defensive end Malik Herring, himself a prospect. “He’s always battling through injuries, just trying to get out there and give it all he’s got and be available to his teammates. I appreciate him for it.”

Senior safety Richard LeCounte remains sidelined because of an Oct. 31 motorcycle accident that left him in intensive care. But he reiterated this week his intention to return to play for the Bulldogs this season.

That’s even more amazing when placed into the team context. The 2020 Georgia football team opened the season ranked No. 4 with the notion of playing in the SEC Championship game for a fourth consecutive year and returning to the College Football Playoff. That goal was effectively obliterated with the second loss of the year two weeks ago against Florida. But the Bulldogs appear determined not to have any more.

“I mean, everybody on this team is doing it for each other,” said sophomore linebacker Nakobe Dean, who hails from Horn Lake, Miss. “A lot of guys here got a lot more to prove than just opting out. This team loves playing football, loves the game.”

Said Smart: “We don’t know if there’s going to be a combine; we don’t know if there will be a Pro Day. What we know is we play Mississippi State at 7:30 on Saturday night, and that’s an opportunity to go showcase what you can do against really good competition.”

Well, maybe not as good as it once was. But point taken.