Among the 18 teams to play in the CFP title games, all but four had wide receivers on the roster who went on to become first-round picks in the NFL draft. The exceptions are Georgia in 2018, 2021 and 2022 and Oregon in 2014. And that first Georgia team had Mecole Hardman, who was the fifth receiver selected in his draft (56th player drafted overall in 2019).
The Bulldogs didn’t need a stud wide receiver to win back-to-back national titles because they had Bowers. He’s a mismatch no matter where he lines up on the field. Bowers turns short passes into big plays with strong hands and superlative agility and acceleration for his size (6-foot-4, 240 pounds). He’s led the Bulldogs in receptions of 20-plus and 30-plus yards for three consecutive seasons.
Now it’s on wide receiver Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint to take up the slack. He was a national top-100 recruit in 2019. Injuries held Rosemy-Jacksaint back until this season. He’s emerged as a second big-catch threat. More than half of Rosemy-Jacksaint’s 18 catches vs. FBS opponents have gone for 20-plus yards (11). We’ll see if Rosemy-Jacksaint can keep producing big plays when opponents don’t have to devote extra resources to covering Bowers.
The Bulldogs will say the next man is up with Bowers down. The problem is there are no proven big-play threats outside of Bowers and Rosemy-Jacksaint. They each have four catches of 30 yards or longer. No other Bulldogs player has more than one. Those pass-catchers will get more opportunities now. Can they help the Bulldogs reverse their slippage in explosive plays?
Georgia’s emergence as a national title contender correlated with explosive passing. The Bulldogs gained 20 yards or more on 8.4% of their passes in 2020. That number jumped to 12.8% in 2021, when freshman Bowers had 14 catches of 20-plus yards. Georgia’s pass plays went for 20 yards or longer 13.7% of the time in 2022.
The Bulldogs won back-to-back titles with a big-play offense to go with an elite defense. This season, Georgia is gaining 20 yards or more on only 9.9% of pass plays. Normally, the Bulldogs make up for other deficiencies with a strong ground game and elite defense, but they also have slipped in those areas.
Transfers have hurt Georgia’s passing game. Wide receiver Jermaine Burton left Athens for Alabama before last season. This year he leads the Crimson Tide in yards per catch (23.5) and TD receptions (four). Wide receiver Adonai Mitchell transferred from Georgia to Texas for this season. Mitchell had four receptions of 20 yards or more in big victories over Alabama and Kansas.
The Bulldogs relied heavily on their tight end to make big plays. Bowers’ injury happened right before Georgia’s schedule gets tougher following a bye this weekend. The next four opponents can score enough points to give the Bulldogs trouble.
Florida’s offense has improved. Missouri, Ole Miss and Tennessee all rank 22nd or better in Bill Connelly’s SP+ metric (adjusted for opponent and situations). Tennessee is the one true road game for Georgia among the next four. The Volunteers now have a good defense (15th in SP+) to complement the offense (18th).
The Bulldogs will try to beat those teams without Bowers. He recently had picked up the pace of his big plays. Bowers had a total of seven catches of 20-plus yards against Auburn and Kentucky. Five of those receptions were longer than 30 yards, including a 40-yard score that put away Auburn.
Tight ends typically aren’t selected high in the NFL draft. Kyle Pitts became an exception when the Falcons used the No. 4 overall pick to select him in 2021. Pitts was touted as the best-ever tight end prospect. Bowers isn’t as physically impressive as Pitts, but he’s been more productive on a per-game basis in college.
It’s possible Bowers will play for the Bulldogs again if they make it back to the CFP. No one should blame Bowers if he decides he’s done, even if that happens. Bowers likely would have been a first-round NFL draft pick this year if the rules allowed it. He doesn’t owe anything to Georgia, which has profited from his unpaid labor.
The Bulldogs still have a very good team without Bowers. But they’ll be missing one of the better playmakers in college football. That’s a tough blow for a team that so far hasn’t run the ball or played defense up to its usual standard. I don’t see the Bulldogs pulling off a three-peat without Bowers as their cheat code at tight end.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC