Smart says he’d like a dynamic UGA offense. Actions say otherwise

Credit: Georgia Bulldogs

Georgia football coach Kirby Smart addresses concerns about the quarterback position ahead of Florida game.

Credit: Georgia Bulldogs

The Georgia Bulldogs are headed to Jacksonville, where the SEC East title will surely be won/lost. Georgia fans are in a tizzy over:

  1. The starting quarterback.
  2. The reluctance to deviate from the starting quarterback.
  3. The pedestrian offense.
  4. The latest offensive coordinator.
  5. The head coach, who says he wants a more dynamic offense but whose teams play the same way every year.

Such is the state of Bulldog Nation in this pandemic year. But such, we’re duty-bound to report, was the state of BN in 2019, when Jake Fromm was coming off two halting games, the first being an unthinkable overtime home loss to South Carolina, the second a tempest-tossed slog — halftime score: 0-0 — against Kentucky. Such was also the state in 2018, when Georgia’s last game before Florida saw the Bulldogs drubbed in Baton Rouge on a day when the unflappable Fromm looked lost.

And how, you ask, did Georgia fare against the hated Gators in those two seasons? In 2019 it never trailed, winning 24-17. In 2018 it won 36-17 behind Fromm’s finest performance as a collegian. He completed 17 of 24 passes for 240 yards and three touchdowns; he threw no interceptions.

The thinking before the 2018 Georgia-Florida game, coming as it did after the blowout in Baton Rouge and a subsequent bye week, would be the day the Bulldogs fashioned an extensive package to exploit Justin Fields’ many gifts. Wrong. That game marked the only time that regular season Fields didn’t make even a cameo appearance. (He would sit out the Sugar Bowl ahead of his exit for Ohio State.) Which told us then, and maybe should tell us now, that Kirby Smart isn’t one to give the people what they want.

Georgia’s coach gives us what HE wants. And what he wants — not to be confused with what he says he wants — is an offense that won’t mess up and put his defense in untenable position.

Said Smart, speaking Monday via Zoom: “Ultimately, we feel like Stetson gives us the best chance to win right now. ... At the end of the day, the decision has to be made on who gives us the best chance to win, and we do that based on the total body of work.”

This correspondent last week asked Smart about Nick Saban’s updated belief that great defenses no longer trump great offenses. Smart kinda/sorta said he agreed with that, but then he noted that a team that plays bad defense – he didn’t mention Oklahoma by name, but you knew who he meant – doesn’t have the greatest record in playoff games. (The Sooners are 0-4, one of the losses coming in overtime against UGA. The final score was 54-48.)

Georgia’s offense finished 61st among FBS teams in yardage last season, after which Fromm and D’Andre Swift and Andrew Thomas left early for the NFL, line coach Sam Pittman became head coach at Arkansas and offensive coordinator James Coley was stripped of his duties. The new year — with Todd Monken as OC, Matt Luke coaching the O-line and many new quarterbacks from which to choose — figured to look much different. It hasn’t.

Georgia ranks 51st in yardage. It averages 404 yards per game. Last year it averaged 408.1. In 2018, its final season under OC Jim Chaney, it ranked 18th, averaging 464.9 yards.

It could be that, for all its quarterbacks, Georgia still got caught short at the most important position. Everything changed when the Wake Forest transfer Jaime Newman, Fromm’s heir apparent, opted out. D’Wan Mathis started the opener at Arkansas and was pulled before halftime. JT Daniels, the USC transfer, hadn’t been medically cleared to play, so that left Stetson Bennett, once a Georgia walk-on, as the only choice.

The Bulldogs have played four games since Arkansas. Bennett has started them all. Mathis appeared in mop-up duty against Auburn and Tennessee but hasn’t thrown a pass since Sept. 26. Daniels, who has since been cleared, hasn’t played a down. Bennett threw three interceptions against Alabama, two more against Kentucky. He ranks 15th among SEC quarterbacks in completion percentage, and we note the SEC has 14 members. He ranks 53rd nationally in passer efficiency. (Fields, ahem, ranks second.)

It’s unlikely that Smart ever dreamed he’d wind up with Bennett as his No. 1. Smart has conceded that Bennett asked him in preseason what his prospects of playing were, and the coach essentially said, “Not great, sir.” But here the smallish QB is, the starter of four games for the nation’s No. 5 team. This makes us wonder just how good Mathis and Daniels are. (The latter mostly works with the scout team.) It also makes us wonder if Smart is pretty much OK with a true game manager.

Often described as such, Fromm was better than that. He ranked fifth nationally in passing efficiency in 2018. The four guys ahead of him — Tua Tagovailoa, Kyler Murray, Will Grier and Dwayne Haskins — all have NFL jobs. I don’t know that anybody sees Bennett, listed as 5-foot-11, playing on Sundays. But, until we’re shown otherwise, Smart views Bennett as the quarterback who gives his team the best chance to win.

Given what happened with Fields, it’s appropriate to ask if Smart truly wants an offense that’s utterly reliant on the quarterback. (Smart’s best team had Nick Chubb and Sony Michel to ease the freshman Fromm’s burden.) It’s also appropriate to note that Smart’s record — Georgia is 40-8 over the past 3-1/2 seasons — has earned him the benefit of nearly every doubt.

After the Kentucky game, Smart was asked if he feels his offense is limited. His response: “I do not. And I hope one day we get to show it. We get to go against a pretty good defense every day (in practice). I see them. I see them pass-pro(tect). I see them throw and catch the ball. I see them run. I see us play-action. I see good things out of our offense.”

Say what you will about Smart – is he stubborn to the point of being smug? Oh, yes — but he’s nobody’s fool. He sees every snap of every practice. You and I don’t. He has made coaching football his life’s work. You and I haven’t. His record tells us he’s very good at his work.

Smart is Georgia’s coach. You and I aren’t. If he believes Bennett is best-equipped to win Saturday, we can grumble all we like. We, however, don’t get a vote. The only vote that matters belongs to a guy who’s 3-1 against Florida.

SATURDAY’S GAME

Georgia vs. Florida (at Jacksonville), 3:30 p.m., CBS, 750 WSB, 95.5 WSB, 1380

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