NEW ORLEANS — Georgia football is scheduled to arrive in the Big Easy on Thursday with a tough task on its hands.
The No. 5-ranked Bulldogs must find motivation to play against the lowest-ranked New Year’s Six bowl team, No. 15 Texas, in the Jan. 1 Sugar Bowl.
At that, the Longhorns (9-4) could have twice as many fans on hand as Georgia (11-2) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome if early projections from independent ticket brokers prove correct.
RELATED: Texas expected to bring more fans than Georgia
The Bulldogs have said all the right things since dropping a heartbreaking 35-28 defeat to No. 1-ranked Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.
The players talk about self-improvement during bowl practice, playing up to a standard and competing for playing time.
But there have been plenty of distractions, internal and external, with all the transfer talk coming from high-profile backup QB Justin Fields and the possibility of players turning professional early.
Coach Kirby Smart has also announced troubled defensive back Deangelo Gibbs is no longer on the team.
The Bulldogs have also yet to hire a defensive coordinator to replace Mel Tucker, and it seems there won’t be a replacement in place until after the bowl game.
Georgia’s football future appears bright, and the team is expected to continue to evolve as an annual national title contender.
But there are some pressing questions for the short term, and some could be answered when the Bulldogs step off the airplane on Thursday:
Will Deandre Baker get off the airplane?
Baker said on Dec. 8 he planned to play in the Sugar Bowl, but he raised doubt when he left Athens following last Thursday’s practice and posted a picture that indicated he was back home in South Florida.
It could be as simple as Smart cutting Baker loose for a couple of well-earned days off before Christmas.
But when the UGA sports information department asked for an explanation of Baker’s absence on behalf of the media — all of the other seniors were at Thursday’s practice — the line of communication ended.
Baker’s presence or lack thereof will have a direct effect on the Sugar Bowl. A projected first-round NFL pick, Baker has proven he has the skills to shut down the best in college football.
It would be understandable if Baker has changed his mind and decided not to play, having so much at stake. Baker has already declined an invitation to play in front of hundreds of NFL coaches, scouts and personnel managers at the Senior Bowl.
Will Justin Fields play?
Fields has said he wants to play in the Sugar Bowl, and Smart has said he welcomes Fields and wants to do whatever puts Georgia in the best situation to win the game.
Fields’ presence with the team in New Orleans creates a unique situation. Fields is allowed to talk to other programs about transferring out even as he practices, travels, eats and meets with his Bulldogs’ teammates.
Smart has handled the Georgia quarterback situation delicately throughout the season, and he has continued to show grace with the national spotlight shining on Fields’ every move.
The Bulldogs’ staff saw to it that Fields was given a fair chance to win the job before and during this season. Fields was provided playing time in 12 of 13 games even when the flow of the contests didn’t necessarily seem to dictate it.
Jake Fromm showed his leadership skills by handling the situation on and off the field, not allowing the potential distraction to disrupt his performances or upset the locker room.
The question remains: Will Fields play in the Sugar Bowl?
How healthy is D’Andre Walker?
The Jalen Hurts miracle script has been written after the Alabama quarterback came off the bench to rally the Tide from 28-21 down to a 35-28 win.
It’s a good sports story and Hurts deserves credit for staying ready to play and seizing the moment.
But the subplot is that Hurts made his comeback with Walker on the bench with an injured groin.
It’s fair to wonder if the Bulldogs’ senior outside linebacker — and team sacks leader — would have made a difference.
Indeed, Walker had five stops, two tackles-for-loss, a QB sack, a forced fumble, a pass break-up and two QB hurries in his three quarters of work before leaving the game with UGA up 28-21.
Whose last game is it?
Fields has gotten most of the attention, but Georgia has a handful of juniors who could be contemplating leaving early even though none appear to be first or second-round picks.
All that can change with a blazing 40-yard dash time or impressive NFL combine workout, of course, and some might be willing to leave even as third-round picks.
The players to keep an eye on: Safety J.R. Reed, TE Isaac Nauta, WR Riley Ridley, WR Mecole Hardman.
Walker isn’t the only game-changing Georgia player who has been banged up.
FWAA Freshman All-American defensive tackle candidate Jordan Davis injured his back lifting weights and missed three practices last week, and no one seems to know when or if he’ll recover in time to play in the Sugar Bowl.
Redshirt sophomore offensive guard Ben Cleveland has been in bowl workouts, but he continues to have a noticeable limp.
Cleveland has been working with the second team — clearly not back to the dominant for the exhibited before breaking his left fibula on Sept. 22.
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