ATLANTA — Dan Mullen took a spot on the SEC Network wrap-up show on Saturday night, providing the perspective of a head coach who faced Georgia and Alabama this season.
Mullen, recently fired after four seasons with the Gators, was among the analysts who second-guessed Kirby Smart after the Bulldogs’ 41-24 loss in the SEC Championship Game.
Mullen zeroed in on a play he felt changed the momentum with Georgia looking to rally in the second half.
The Bulldogs trailed Alabama 31-17 with the third quarter winding down when Smart opted to go for a fourth-and-9 at the Alabama 19 rather than opt for a 36-yard field goal attempt.
Quarterback Bennett had thrown a Red Zone interception the previous possession, and to Mullen’s point, it was the sort of obvious pass situation the Bulldogs struggled with all season.
Sure enough, the Tide brought pressure, and Bennett unleaded the ball quickly, not coming close to the intended target.
Mullen, whose Gators outgained Alabama 439 to 331 in a 31-29 loss earlier this season, said it was “an interesting call in that situation” for Smart to make.
“You’re a team that’s based on run play action, and you’re putting your quarterback in a drop-back mode on fourth-and-10 when you’re still in the third quarter,” Mullen said. " A field goal cuts it to 11, gets you a little bit of momentum going.
“You’re playing great defense (UGA forced a punt the previous Alabama drive), John Metchie is out of the game,” he said. “So you are thinking, let’s get a stop here. Let’s get the points and get a little bit of momentum out of this.
“I think not converting on that fourth down, not scoring on that drive, really kind of flipped momentum and deflated the Georgia sideline.”
Mullen noted the Tide forced Smart to abandon the ground-and-pound approach it had paired with a dominant defense all season.
“They took Georgia out of what Georgia wanted to do early in the second half,” Mullen said, explaining how the Tide’s disguised coverages got quarterback Stetson Bennett off track.
“You’re forcing a guy who is not a drop-back quarterback to have to make tight throws in tight windows instead of just running the offense.”
Jordan Rodgers, a former Vanderbilt quarterback who once led the Commodores to a Top 25 finish, agreed.
“They have a style problem on offense,” Rodgers said. “They are really good when they dictate it and can run the football, play ball control and play-action with Stetson.
“When it’s not that, they struggle.”
Third down struggles
Advanced metrics show that Bennett is 21 of 44 passing for 195 yards on third and fourth downs, but he has only converted passes for first downs on those occasions 13 of 44 ( 29 percent) times.
Bennett was 3 of 10 passing on third and fourth downs against Alabama on Saturday night and was sacked twice.
JT Daniels, in three SEC games, was 10 of 11 passing on third downs for 133 yards and converted passes for first downs on those occasions 10 of 11 times.
Smart has shown he’s willing to return players to the lineup who have been injured, with safety Christopher Smith and lineman Jamaree Salyer both playing on Saturday night even though their replacements had fared well.
Daniels, 7-0 at Georgia, was the starter throughout the offseason and through fall camp before suffering a strained lat muscle injury that sidelined him for three games.
The quarterback position, Smart has said, gets evaluated like any other, though a change may not be imminent.
Confidence in Stetson
Smart stuck with Bennett after a less than stellar performance against Florida, when Bennett was 10-of-19 passing for 161 yards with a TD and two interceptions in a 34-7 win.
“I have the utmost confidence in Stetson Bennett, I think he did some really nice things tonight,” Smart said after the loss to Alabama on Saturday night. “We go and reevaluate everything all the time but he played well.
“But I certainly have a lot of confidence in Stetson, and I have a lot of confidence in JT, too.”
Georgia will have a chance to make adjustments on offense and defense before the College Football Playoffs.
The CFP Selection Show is at noon on Sunday, and UGA is expected to be among the four teams playing in either the Cotton Bowl (Arlington, Texas) or the Orange Bowl (Miami Gardens, Fla.).