An inconvenient truth: UGA’s slippage is due to its quarterbacks

Georgia coach Kirby Smart gives QB Stetson Bennett a pat on the helmet during a moment on the sideline.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart gives QB Stetson Bennett a pat on the helmet during a moment on the sideline.

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

This marks the first time since 2016, Kirby Smart’s difficult Year 1, that Georgia has lost two regular-season games. It marks the first year in four that the Bulldogs have been eliminated from College Football Playoff consideration before December. It marks the first time since Jake Fromm enrolled that Georgia has no clear path to the SEC East title. Perhaps not coincidentally, Fromm exited after last season.

ExploreGeorgia starts Missouri prep without QB Stetson Bennett

You can say this is merely a lesser year, a dip on a graph that has been pointing upward for a while now. But if we’re eyeing a graph, it makes sense to check facts and figures. Here are Georgia’s past three seasons:

2017: 13-2, won the SEC East, won the SEC championship, played for the national championship.

2018: 11-3, won the SEC East, lost the SEC championship by seven points, finished fifth in the CFP rankings.

2019: 12-2, won the SEC East, lost the SEC championship by 27 points, finished fifth in the CFP rankings.

2020: 4-2, trails Florida by a game in the East with the Gators holding the head-to-head tiebreaker.

That’s not an utter collapse. (LSU has utterly collapsed.) At worst, the Bulldogs are the SEC’s fourth-best team. Still, over the previous three seasons, they were never less than second-best. Georgia’s numbers will surely look better one month hence, once it has dispatched Missouri, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Vanderbilt. Here, however, are how the numbers, viewed alongside those of the past three years, look today.

2017: 435.3 yards per game, 294.9 yards against; 35.4 points per game, 16.4 points against.

2018: 466.1 YPG, 314.3 YA; 37.9 PPG, 19.2 PA.

2019: 408.9 YPG, 276.0 YA; 30.8 PPG, 12.6 PA.

2020: 382.8 YPG, 345.7 YA; 29.0 PPG, 20.8 PA.

Even as offensive numbers across college football soar ever upward, Georgia’s are receding. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs’ defensive stats have gone from stellar to just pretty good. Opponents are averaging almost 50 yards more per game than in 2017; Georgia averages 83.3 fewer yards than it did in 2018. The 2017 Bulldogs outscored their opposition by 19 points a game; today the spread is 8.8.

Thus does the data reflect what our eyeballs have been telling us: The best college teams have the best quarterbacks, which Georgia no longer does. This could change next season, when Brock Vandagriff of Bogart enrolls. If he’s as good as advertised, we might be able to write off 2020 as a case of a mighty program getting caught short in a pandemic year.

The Bulldogs’ 2018 roster included Fromm, who finished fifth nationally in passing efficiency, and Justin Fields, the nation’s No. 1 recruit. For the record, we repeat what we’ve said all along: There was no good way to placate two quarterbacks of that caliber, given that only one can play at a time. Trouble was, once Fields left for Ohio State, Fromm ceased being of that caliber. He fell to 51st in passing efficiency. Now Stetson Bennett, Georgia’s accidental quarterback, ranks 75th. Fields was a Heisman finalist last year and should be again.

In another era, Fromm might have been completing his senior season at Georgia while Fields waited semi-patiently for his one year to shine. We recall David Greene/D.J. Shockley, though that might have been the last example of its kind. Fields split for Ohio State with three years of eligibility remaining. Fromm declared for the NFL with a year left.

The Bulldogs needed a bridge to Vandagriff. They thought they’d found not one but two. Jaime Newman arrived from Wake Forest, soon to be followed by JT Daniels of USC. Neither of those high-profile transfers has played a down for UGA. Newman opted out of the season 3-1/2 weeks before the opening game. For reasons still unclear, Daniels has been quarterbacking the scout team. D’Wan Mathis started in Week 1 and was pulled after 20 minutes. Bennett did OK until he ran into Alabama; against Florida, he appeared the walk-on he once was.

Complicating matters — as if matters weren’t complicated enough — is that Bennett hurt the AC joint in his throwing shoulder against Florida and required a painkilling shot to continue. (That’s correct: In its biggest game of the season, Georgia decided that Bennett with a bad shoulder offered its best chance to win.) Asked if Bennett, if he’s indeed healthy, would start Saturday against Missouri, Smart said Monday: “That’s a great question. A great question. Only to be answered by the end of the week.”

What happens with Georgia’s quarterbacks for the rest of the season will be instructive. Will Mathis get another start? Will Bennett play another down? Will Daniels’ turn ever come? The 2021 season seems earmarked for Vandagriff, whose arrival could trigger another round of UGA-related QB transfers. But we note again: Fields arrived to even greater hype and couldn’t dislodge Fromm, though Fromm has dislodged Jacob Eason, albeit due to injury, a year earlier.

Not that he’d ever tell us, but we have to wonder: If Smart was granted a mulligan on choosing between Fromm and Fields, would he have decided differently? Probably not, I’d wager. Smart is conservative by nature. He knew exactly what he was getting from Fromm in 2018, and Fromm in 2018 was very good. But Dabo Swinney faced a similar choice at the exact same time, and he picked Trevor Lawrence, a freshman from Cartersville, over the incumbent Kelly Bryant, who promptly quit the team. That will stand forever as a sliding-doors moment for Clemson and college football writ large.

This is looking way ahead, but if it’s close between Vandagriff and/or Mathis and/or Daniels, will Smart do as Dabo did? Another great question. Only to be answered next summer.

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