UGA shows us what might have been - and what might be

Not since November 2016 had Georgia worked a regular-season game knowing it wouldn’t be playing for the SEC championship and therefore a ticket to the College Football Playoff. That alone made Saturday’s delayed date in Columbia, Mo., intriguing. With nothing at stake, would the going-nowhere Bulldogs mail it in?

Final score: Georgia 49, Missouri 14.

This game was tied inside the first half’s final 40 seconds. The rest was so lopsided you wondered if the 25th-ranked Tigers opted out at halftime. Georgia scored the next 35 points. Given the distinct possibility that next week’s reset game with Vanderbilt won’t be played, this regular season might have just ended as it began, with backup Stetson Bennett replacing Georgia’s starting quarterback in an afternoon game set in the Central time zone.

Difference was, Bennett’s mission this day wasn’t to rally a trailing Georgia; it was merely to give JT Daniels, who supplanted Bennett as the No. 1 quarterback three games ago, the rest of the day off. (Indeed, Carson Beck, the latest No. 3, got a look Saturday.) The Bulldogs with Daniels are so transformed it’s hard to believe there was, as recently as last month, a real question as to whether Kirby Smart would ever again field a big-time offense.

Over eight quarters in consecutive weeks against Kentucky and Florida, Georgia managed a total of 623 yards. But that was then. Here’s the now: In four quarters against Mizzou, it managed 614.

After switching to Daniels, Georgia generated some schizoid stats. It had eight yards rushing and 409 yards passing against Mississippi State, 332 yards rushing and 139 passing at South Carolina. On Saturday, the Bulldogs hit a nigh-perfect blend – 316 yards on 45 rushes, 299 yards passing on 28 throws.

Said Daniels: “It was our first real complete game. Today we threw when the (defensive) look said to throw, and we ran when the look said to run.”

It isn’t as if the Bulldogs have gone all Air Raid on us. Of their first 11 snaps Saturday, 10 were runs. But when they needed Daniels to make a throw, he made it. He completed 16 of 27 passes for 299 yards on a day when Georgia also saw two backs rush for more than 100 yards.

As for Missouri: The Tigers entered the game averaging 434.8 yards; they finished with 200. They made three first downs after halftime.

Not that finishing second to Florida in the SEC East ever was Georgia’s goal, but a loss at Memorial Stadium would have dropped them below Missouri. For 29 minutes, this seemed a match of near-equals. After blocking a punt inside the half’s final two minutes, the Tigers tied the score at 14-14. That wasn’t, however, the way the half ended.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart called a timeout with 1:24 left and Mizzou facing third-and-goal. The game changed there. “I’m not calling that timeout for the defense,” Smart said. “I’m calling that timeout so Eliah (Drinkwitz, Missouri’s coach) doesn’t milk it for 40 seconds.”

Would Smart have been that aggressive had Bennett, as opposed to Daniels, still been Georgia’s quarterback? We’ll never know. What we do know: Daniels completed five of six passes over 43 seconds, the last culminating in a 37-yard touchdown to George Pickens. Daniels’ throw came as he was hit by a Mizzou lineman who jumped offside; Pickens’ grab came as a defender interfered with him. Big-time on both ends.

Daniels: “That’s what it looks like when it’s one-on-one with George Pickens. A 50-50 ball to George is an 80-20 ball.”

Georgia received the second-half kickoff. Two Zamir White runs netted 42 yards. On third-and-10 from the Missouri 31, Daniels hit Pickens on a quick slant that become another touchdown. Over 11 snaps spanning two halves, Georgia gained 150 yards and scored two touchdowns. It would score three more on its next three possessions.

Was this, Smart was asked, all because of Daniels? “JT is throwing the ball and throwing it accurately. Everyone is playing in coach (Todd) Monken’s system for what, the ninth game? And our younger guys are growing up. Where that falls and who gets the credit doesn’t really matter.”

Some Georgia fans will never forgive Smart for waiting until the East had been lost to make Daniels the starter. Bulldog insiders insist that the USC transfer, who wasn’t medically cleared for the Sept. 28 opener at Arkansas, needed another month to make an impression in practice. Whatever the case, it wasn’t until Georgia was handed an unexpected off-week after the Florida game, in which Bennett had hurt his shoulder, that the change was made. (When Smart removed Bennett late against Florida, it wasn’t Daniels who replaced him; it was D’Wan Mathis, who since decided to transfer.)

Would Daniels have made a difference in the losses to Alabama and especially Florida? We’ll never know that, either. What we do know: The post-Florida Bulldogs have been a team transformed. They’ve scored 31, 45 and 49 points with Daniels starting; they managed 24, 14 and 28 in the three games before that.

At a time where many collegians have decided they want nothing more to do with this pandemic season, Georgia looks as if it has found a second wind. Said Smart: “Those kids showed up to play physical and to play fast, and not everybody across the country is doing that.”

With two losses and no championships, Georgia won’t make the 2020 playoff. With so many of these players scheduled to return, 2021 might look rather different.