Georgia has pass catchers necessary for national championship run

Georgia wide receiver George Pickens (1) celebrates his touchdown reception with Kearis Jackson during the first half against Cincinnati in the NCAA college football Peach Bowl game on Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in Atlanta. Georgia beat Cincinnati 24-21. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Georgia wide receiver George Pickens (1) celebrates his touchdown reception with Kearis Jackson during the first half against Cincinnati in the NCAA college football Peach Bowl game on Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in Atlanta. Georgia beat Cincinnati 24-21. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Mecole Hardman is set to play for the Chiefs in an NFL playoff game Sunday. He’s probably the best Georgia wide receiver Georgia has turned out in 20 years. That’s a problem for the Bulldogs. College football’s era of explosive offense requires superlative pass catchers, not just throwers, and Georgia’s lack of them is the main reason for their three-year College Football Playoff drought.

I was thinking about that while watching Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith toy with Ohio State in the national championship game Monday. Alabama’s Mac Jones is a fine passer with good accuracy and timing, but it helped him that Smith seemingly was always open and catches everything.

Jones is the latest Crimson Tide quarterback to benefit from such an arrangement. The Tide made a seamless transition from Jalen Hurts to Tua Tagovailoa to Jones. Game-breaking wide receivers were a connective tissue between all of them.

Quarterback is, of course, football’s most important position. But even great QBs need one or two targets who can run away from defenders, stretch the field and snatch balls from the air. College football’s offensive evolution means those players are the difference between very good teams and true championship contenders.

It’s been a long time since Georgia had a pass catcher like that. A.J. Green is the last Bulldogs wide receiver to be selected in the first round of the NFL draft. That was in 2011. Hardman is the only Bulldogs receiver picked as high as the second round since then. Tailbacks, not wide receivers, are Georgia’s thing.

That could be changing for the Bulldogs. Next season they are set to have their deepest wide receiver group since Hardman and Riley Ridley departed for the draft following the 2018 season. That’s a good reason to believe the Bulldogs can win the next national championship.

Junior-to-be George Pickens has star potential. Kearis Jackson might be a late bloomer after injuries held him back. Don’t forget Dominick Blaylock, among the nation’s highest-rated wide receivers in the 2019 recruiting class. If he makes a successful return from knee injuries, the Bulldogs could have at least three ace wide receivers.

Much of the talk about Georgia’s chances in 2021 center around quarterback JT Daniels. He was good in four starts, all victories. Next fall Daniels will be two years removed from the knee injury that ended his second season at USC after one game. The Bulldogs have a quarterback to lead an explosive offense.

But it’s not as if the Bulldogs had bad QB play in 2019. Whatever you think of Jake Fromm, he clearly was an above-average starter. A problem in his final season was that he didn’t have a good, experienced wide receiver group. A pretty good passer with deficient pass catchers was enough for UGA win an SEC East title because of its great defense, but that was the ceiling.

Georgia’s offensive regression in 2019 was predictable. Before the season Connor O’Gara, writing for Saturday Down South, noted that all 20 teams that had participated in the CFP returned at least one receiver who was top five in yards from the season before. The same was true for the eight teams that made the CFP for the 2020 and 2021 seasons.

Georgia didn’t have a top-five receiver returning in 2019. The Bulldogs had two of them in 2020. But the two quarterbacks who got their shot before Daniels couldn’t consistently get the ball to them. Once Daniels got his turn, then Pickens, especially, took off.

In October, before Daniels had played, Pro Football Focus ranked Pickens No. 17 among college wide receivers. With Daniels as passer, Pickens averaged 93 yards over four games (16.2 per catch) with four touchdowns. In his four previous games during 2020, Pickens averaged 33 yards (10 per catch) with two TDs. In 12 games in 2019 with Fromm, Pickens averaged 61 yards (14.8 per catch) with eight TDs.

Jackson was No. 19 in the PFF ranking. His production declined with Daniels as QB: nine catches for 118 yards and a TD over four games. But Georgia’s offense improved significantly even as Jackson wasn’t catching as many passes. There are only so many to go around.

During the season Daniels said more than once that he’s willing to throw 50/50 balls to his receivers to give them a chance to make a play. That’s the right mentality when the receivers have the size and ball skills. The Bulldogs in 2021 finally should have good, experienced pass catchers paired with a quarterback who will put passes in places where they can catch them.

Look at the most recent CFP contenders, and you’ll see that great wide receivers are an essential ingredient.

Alabama wide receivers were picked in the first round of the past three drafts: Calvin Ridley (No. 26 overall, 2018), Henry Ruggs (No. 12, 2020) and Jerry Jeudy (No. 15, 2020). Smith and teammate Jaylen Waddle will be selected early in the next draft.

Quarterback Joe Burrow was great during LSU’s 2019 national title run. He also played with three wide receivers who are top NFL prospects. Justin Jefferson was the No. 22 pick in the 2020 draft. Ja’Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall are projected to be first-round picks in April.

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence was magnificent when the Tigers beat Alabama for the 2018 national championship. But recall that his wide receivers made great catches throughout that game. One of them, Tee Higgins, was the No. 33 pick in the 2020 draft. Another, Justyn Ross, was expected to be picked high in the 2021 draft until a spinal condition sidelined him for the 2020 season (he’s returning to Clemson for next season).

It was a similar story at wide receiver for most of the other teams that made the college playoffs the past three seasons while Georgia was left out.

Oklahoma had CeeDee Lamb. Ohio State had Chris Olave. Lawrence might have taken Clemson further in 2020 if he were throwing to a receiver like Higgins or Ross. Notre Dame is the outlier. The Fighting Irish made the CFP without great wide receivers, but once there, they couldn’t score enough to be competitive.

The 2018 Bulldogs won the SEC championship and advanced to the national title game. Their offense was powered by tailbacks Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and D’Andre Swift. Their leading receivers were Javon Wims and Terry Godwin, both marginal NFL prospects.

Georgia beat Oklahoma in the CFP semifinal that year despite passing for only 210 yards. The Bulldogs lost the championship game to Alabama, which passed for 187 yards to their 232. The teams combined for 40 points in regulation. That’s the last CFP game that could be considered a defensive struggle.

The winner of the nine playoff games since then averaged 42.8 points and all scored at least 29. The days of winning big in college football without an explosive passing offense are over. Doing it without top-tier, experienced wide receivers is nearly impossible.

The Bulldogs have those now. That’s why they are a strong contender to win the 2021 national championship.

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