Georgia lacking star wide receiver for national title defense

1/10/22 - Indianapolis - Georgia Bulldogs wide receiver Jermaine Burton (7) runs after a catch against Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Brian Branch (14), and defensive back DeMarcco Hellams (2) during the second quarter at the 2022 College Football Playoff National Championship at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Monday, January 10, 2022.   Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin

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1/10/22 - Indianapolis - Georgia Bulldogs wide receiver Jermaine Burton (7) runs after a catch against Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Brian Branch (14), and defensive back DeMarcco Hellams (2) during the second quarter at the 2022 College Football Playoff National Championship at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Monday, January 10, 2022. Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Stetson Bennett should have settled the Great Georgia Quarterback Debate when the Bulldogs beat Alabama in the national championship game. Anyone hoping otherwise needs to get over it. Bennett is coming back for an extra season and JT Daniels is transferring.

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I always wondered why Bennett’s critics never seemed to notice that Bennett didn’t have a star wide receiver at his disposal. Remember when Kirby Smart threw his receivers under the bus after losing to LSU in the 2019 SEC Championship game? The position could be an issue again for the Bulldogs as they try to defend their title next season.

Bennett still will have standout tight end Brock Bowers as an option. But Jermaine Burton, Georgia’s best big-play wide receiver, announced Wednesday that he intends to transfer. George Pickens, UGA’s most talented wide receiver, already had declared his intention to enter the NFL draft. That leaves Ladd McConkey and Adonai Mitchell as Georgia’s top two returning wide receivers.

Both players were productive in their first season playing for Georgia. Neither is the prototypical big, fast and pedigreed wide receiver that national championship contenders almost always have. The list of teams to play in the College Football Playoff Championship game correlates with the ledger of top wide receivers in the NFL draft.

Fourteen teams played in the CFP Championship game before this season. All but two had a wide receiver on the roster who would go on to become among the first five drafted at their position. The exceptions: Oregon during the 2014 season, and Ohio State in 2021.

Put an asterisk next to the Buckeyes. Two wide receivers on that team, Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, are expected to be selected in the first round of this year’s draft. Alabama also has two wide receiver prospects who will be picked early: Jameson Williams and John Metchie.

Pickens could fall in the draft because of his injury history. Burton probably needs a big junior season to be considered a top player at his position. If those players don’t end up as top draft prospects, then Bennett will have won the national championship without an elite receiver, save for Pickens’ limited role in four games.

That makes Bennett’s accomplishment even more impressive. The possibly unprecedented nature of his feat indicates how hard it will be for him to repeat it in 2022.

I’ve long believed that Bennett is a good quarterback who didn’t get enough credit. But even great quarterbacks need great wide receivers to win big. Some QBs for title contenders had at least two. That includes Joe Burrow at LSU and pretty much every Alabama quarterback during the CFP era.

Burton had a chance to become Bennett’s go-to guy as a junior. He dealt with injuries during the season, but still averaged 19.1 yards on 26 catches. That was the ninth-best mark among Power 5 players. Burton had three catches longer than 40 yards, including a 57-yard TD against Michigan in the Orange Bowl.

Burton decided he wants to play elsewhere. It’s good that he has the choice. It’s a setback for Georgia. It will be even worse for the Bulldogs if Burton ends up at Alabama. Chris Hummer of 247Sports, citing an anonymous source, reported that the Crimson Tide are an option for Burton.

If Burton is looking for more targets, he might find them at Bama. The Tide passed 38.1 times per game last season compared with 27.1 for Georgia (playing often with sizeable leads had a lot to do with that). Alabama quarterback Bryce Young will be seeking new top targets with Williams and Metchie gone.

Bowers gobbled up most of the attempts from Bennett, for good reason. He was great as a freshman: 56 receptions for 882 yards and 13 TDs. Bowers scored in all three of Georgia’s postseason games. He served as a valuable safety valve for Bennett when things went bad, in addition to being a playmaker for coordinator Todd Monken to use across the formation.

That’s why it’s possible that I’m making too much of Georgia’s lack of an elite wide receiver for 2022. That’s not Bowers’ position, but as Nick Saban noted, he’s a big and physical pass-catcher with “wide receiver skills in every way, shape or form.” Bowers isn’t a speedy guy on the outside. He is a matchup problem all over the field.

Bennett-to-Bowers figures to be a staple of Georgia’s offense again in 2022. That’s a good thing. I still think the Bulldogs need a big-time wide receiver to have a chance to repeat. Bucking that trend two years in a row is too much to ask.

It’s possible the Bulldogs will find a good wide receiver in the transfer portal. Lately, they’ve had a lot more of them outgoing. Burton is the eighth Georgia receiver in the past two offseason cycles to enter the portal. According to 247Sports, Burton is the first from that group to rank among the nation’s top transfers at any position.

That may not be the biggest issue for the Bulldogs next season. Up to five starters from their all-time great defense are expected to be selected early in the NFL draft. I always assume that Smart will field a strong defense until proved otherwise. A parade of opposing coaches this season marveled at Georgia’s waves of good defenders. More standouts will emerge next season to replace those leaving.

There’s a lot more uncertainty about whether the same will happen for UGA at wide receiver. The Bulldogs have leaked talent at the position in the two years since Smart cited deficiencies in that group to explain the lack of explosive plays. The candidates to stop the bleeding are McConkey, Mitchell, two highly rated recruits from the 2022 class and any players Smart gets from the transfer portal.

The Bulldogs have their championship-winning quarterback for 2022. Bennett did it with his best wide receiver catching five passes all season. It won’t be good for the Bulldogs if he has to try to win big again without a big-time wide receiver.

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