Georgia’s tough task: Win CFP without top NFL QB prospect

I believed Georgia would return to the College Football Playoff this year with Jake Fromm at quarterback. Then he declared for the NFL draft.

I thought Georgia would be a tough sell for transfer quarterbacks because of its throwback offense. Days later, Kirby Smart enticed Jamie Newman to Athens and (in a related move) upgraded with ex-NFL offensive coordinator Todd Monken.

Months later, the Big Ten scrapped its season because of COVID-19. With Ohio State out of the picture, I pegged the Bulldogs, not Alabama, as the top threat to Clemson for the national title (assuming this season makes it to the end).

Then Newman decided to opt out of this season. With that, Georgia’s national-championship chances went from reasonable to remote.

The Bulldogs have an elite defense. They have a strong talent base because of long-term recruiting success that’s a close second to Alabama. Both are Smart signatures.

What the Bulldogs don’t have is a top NFL prospect at quarterback. That’s become a prerequisite to win a championship in the College Football Playoff era. Newman has (had?) a chance to the next QB drafted after Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields. The quarterbacks still on UGA’s roster aren’t that high on the NFL’s radar, and may never be.

Newman said “uncertainties” about COVID-19 influenced his decision. It was unexpected after Newman played in a scrimmage last weekend. But Newman has a right to sit out for whatever reason. It’s bad luck for Smart, who covered his bases with his QB only to be derailed by a pandemic.

Smart’s big QB mistake was playing it too safely by sticking with Fromm over Fields. The latter was deployed as a gimmick for Georgia before becoming a Heisman Trophy candidate for Ohio State. But Smart deftly replenished the QB depth after Fromm departed by landing Newman and adding JT Daniels as insurance. The latter was a five-star recruit for USC.

That means Daniels has the talent to become a good starter for Georgia. He was the third-ranked QB in the 2018 class behind Lawrence and Fields, per 247Sports. But Pro Football Focus ranked Daniels 118th of 136 qualifying QBs after his freshman season. Daniels suffered a season-ending knee injury in Game 1 of 2019 and still hasn’t been cleared for contact.

There are lots of questions about Daniels. Newman seemed to be the answer for Georgia. PFF ranked him 19th of 131 college QBs in 2019. It placed Newman fifth among pro QB prospects. Newman earned high marks for accuracy on deep throws. That track record, along with his athletic ability, promised a more dynamic Bulldogs offense in 2020.

With Newman, the Bulldogs had a realistic chance to win their first national championship since 1980. ESPN’s Football Power Index ranked them third among teams still playing. Now Georgia will try to become the rare CFP champion that lacks a QB that NFL teams covet.

The past four national championship winners were Clemson, Alabama, Clemson again and LSU. The quarterbacks for those teams were Deshaun Watson, Jalen Hurts, Trevor Lawrence and Joe Burrow. You also can include Tua Tagovailoa, who came off the bench to beat the Bulldogs for the 2017 title.

Watson was the No. 12 overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft. In the latest draft, Burrow was the No. 1 pick, Tagovailoa was No. 5 and Hurts was No. 53. Lawrence would have been a high pick in either of the past two drafts if he had been eligible. He likely will be the No. 1 pick in 2021 if he leaves Clemson.

Nowadays, it takes a top NFL quarterback prospect to win a national championship. It wasn’t always like that. Ohio State and Alabama won the first two CFP championships with good college QBs who nonetheless were marginal NFL prospects.

In 2014, Urban Meyer’s Ohio State won it all with QB Cardale Jones. He was third-string to start the season and flamed out in the NFL after the Bills drafted him in the fourth round. The Buckeyes rode future NFL All-Pro running back Ezekiel Elliott to that title. Alabama won the next season’s championship with QB Jake Coker, who wasn’t drafted and never played in the NFL. The 2015 Bama defense, coordinated by Smart, was the best in the nation.

The four quarterbacks to win a national championship after Jones and Coker all went on to become high picks in the NFL draft. Hurts was the only one among them not selected in the first round. Lawrence soon will join Watson, Tagovailoa and Burrow as a first-round pick.

We’re almost to the point that simply making the CFP almost requires an elite NFL quarterback prospect. The two exceptions among the 12 CFP teams over the past three seasons: Fromm and Clemson’s Kelly Bryant in 2016. Notre Dame’s Ian Book, projected to be selected in the late rounds of the 2021 draft, could be another outlier.

We’ll see if Daniels can be the latest unheralded QB to take his team to the CFP. His return from knee surgery will provide only one challenge. Dominick Blaylock’s season-ending injury thinned Georgia’s receiving corps behind George Pickens. The offensive line is rebuilt after three starters went to the NFL. A star tailback is needed with D’Andre Swift gone.

Those were questions before Newman left. Smart’s stellar recruiting is the answer, along with Monken’s (presumed) move to a more wide-open offense. Unlike Ohio State in 2014, Georgia doesn’t have a great back it can ride to a championship. But, like the 2015 Crimson Tide, the Bulldogs have a great defense shaped by Smart.

Those are reasons why Georgia should be very good again even without Newman. But Alabama has the edge at quarterback now with Mac Jones (PFF’s 24th-ranked QB). Florida, with QB Kyle Trask (No. 49), is a bigger threat now. As usual, Auburn will be great on defense and former elite QB recruit Bo Nix (No. 95) was pretty good as a freshman.

The Bulldogs can compete with all those opponents if they get competent QB play. With Newman, I liked the Bulldogs to beat all those opponents and reach the CFP. Now they’ll try to become the first team since the 2015 season to win it all without a top NFL prospect at QB.