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Georgia only got to play three home games in Sanford Stadium during the pandemic-challenged 2020 season.
Chamberlain Smith

Dawgs football: What to make of a season that almost wasn’t

After three years of always getting to watch the Dawgs play on Championship Saturday — and the team having a shot at the College Football Playoff — it felt strange watching the conference title games while Georgia sat at home.

But, considering the entire football season frequently has matched the year 2020 in its departures from the norm, a little strangeness was to be expected.

Once he finally got the chance to play, quarterback JT Daniels lived up to expectations. (Associated Press)

There were times this year when we didn’t think we’d get to see college football played at all, as a couple of the Power 5 conferences initially called the season off. But, even they ended up playing half-seasons after the sport’s flagship, the Southeastern Conference, persevered with a delayed, SEC-only schedule.

Still, the pandemic meant games being postponed and canceled, with the Georgia-Vanderbilt meeting and the Dawgs’ Senior Day ceremony among the casualties.

Amid all the chaos, you can’t blame Dawgs fans for continuing to engage in some wistful what-ifs as the crazy season-interruptus moves on to the playoff and bowl games.

Even if you can’t envision any scenario in which Kirby Smart’s fifth Georgia team would have beaten this year’s high-scoring Alabama squad, it’s fair for UGA fans to wonder whether the Florida game might have turned out differently had the Dawgs entered the game with a serviceable quarterback, i.e., JT Daniels. And, if the Dawgs had come out of Championship Saturday with their only two losses both being to No. 1 Alabama, might they still have been considered for a playoff berth? We’ll never know.

There were a lot of those discussions among Georgia fans Saturday — and, yes, it’s a completely futile exercise. The coaching staff didn’t decide to start (or even play) Daniels until Georgia already was relegated to just watching the SEC Championship Game on TV, so the might-have-beens are no more than daydreams.

Zamir White is seen in the one-time-only uniform Georgia wore in its season opener against Arkansas. (University of Georgia)

So, returning to reality, a Georgia team that got to play only nine regular season games fell short of both of its season goals — playing for the SEC title and gaining a playoff berth — and now faces a pretty challenging matchup with Cincinnati in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

Hopefully, the No. 9-ranked Dawgs already have adjusted to a season without a title and will approach the New Year’s Day game against the No. 8 (and undefeated) Bearcats with the business-like manner we saw in last year’s Sugar Bowl game against Baylor, rather than the who-gives-a-damn attitude they showed two years ago against Texas.

Of course, things aren’t like they used to be when it comes to bowl season. Nowadays, if you’re not in the playoff, you’re basically playing just to give ESPN holiday programming and get some extra practice time. Already, five Dawgs seniors have opted out of playing in this year’s bowl game, and there probably will be more before Jan. 1.

On the plus side, that will give younger players more time on the field, and allow Smart and Co. to use the bowl game and its practice sessions as early preparation for the 2021 season. As I wrote last week after the Missouri game (which we didn’t know at the time would end up being an unexpected regular season finale), the outlook is very positive for next year, assuming some key players (like Daniels) decide to return.

Receiver Jermaine Burton is seen in the black jersey that marked one of four uniforms the Dawgs wore this season. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

(Some Bulldog Nation cynics pointed out, the wait-till-next-year mantra is a familiar one in Athens, but I believe most fans would rather concentrate on the program’s bright prospects, rather than the relatively disappointing present.)

Before we move on, though, let’s take a moment to consider the chaotic, unusual, pandemic-altered 2020 season that almost wasn’t.

It was a year that saw no spring practice or G-Day game, the Dawgs wearing four different uniforms, the coaches wearing masks (most of the time) on the sideline, and the team playing only three home games before socially distanced crowds in the low 20-thousands.

Back in the summer, many folks thought there wouldn’t be a season at all, but, amid strict pandemic protocols and constant testing of the players, the decision was made to move ahead with a delayed season that was rejiggered to jettison all nonconference games and add a couple more SEC opponents for a 10-game schedule. That meant no nonconference games against “cupcake” opponents, in which younger players could get valuable experience, as well as the temporary suspension of the in-state rivalry with Georgia Tech.

It was quite a different year for college football, with even the Georgettes wearing masks. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

It got even weirder once preseason camp was underway, with Jamie Newman — a hot-shot graduate transfer from Wake Forest who was the expected replacement for the early-departing Jake Fromm — deciding after a couple of weeks that he wasn’t going to play for Georgia (or anyone) this season.

That launched the overriding (and ultimately fateful) story arc of the season: Who’s going to play quarterback? Another highly rated transfer, Daniels from Southern Cal, was not yet medically cleared from knee surgery by the time of the first game, so D’Wan Mathis, who had sat out last year because of brain surgery, got the nod to start Georgia’s opener on the road against Arkansas in snazzy one-time-only uniforms with red britches celebrating the 40th anniversary of Georgia’s most recent national championship.

Stetson Bennett IV did not have a good day against the Gators in Jacksonville. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

Unfortunately, Mathis faltered in the starting job, looking like a deer in the headlights most of the time, and was pulled midway through the game for Stetson Bennett IV, who had started out the year considered the fourth-stringer, and had been told by the coaches that they didn’t see him competing for the starter’s job.

Bennett, a former walk-on who had transferred out and then back to Georgia on scholarship, became a bit of a folk hero and provided some warm-and-fuzzy TV features as he saved the day and won the starting job.

But, a sputtering Georgia offense continued to look not ready for prime time. The loss to Alabama wasn’t unexpected, considering the rebuilding job that always was going to be the 2020 Dawgs offense in the wake of a considerable talent drain after the previous season, but Bennett’s severe limitations soon became painfully obvious in Jacksonville.

The way D’Wan Mathis looks on the sideline after another interception sums up this year’s Florida game for the Dawgs. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

When Bennett got banged up against the Gators, Daniels still was deemed not yet ready to play, and Mathis was brought back in. Between the two of them, Bennett and Mathis turned in one of the poorest one-two quarterback performances in recent memory. On top of that, a Georgia defense that already had been exposed by the Crimson Tide as not being quite as great as everyone thought they were had to play the Florida game with several starters out.

The loss to Florida basically derailed Georgia’s season, but, even though they no longer were in contention, we finally got to see the much-anticipated Daniels, and he proved indeed to be all that. It was too late in the conference wars, but the Dawgs had found a QB and an offense.

Fans also got the college football season they so desperately craved in a year when so many other simple pleasures were denied us. Against all odds, the SEC scheduled 70 games, and, remarkably, 68 of them actually happened. It sucks that Georgia had one of the two games that couldn’t be played, and that the Dawgs’ seniors didn’t get their day to trot out to greet their families on the field at Sanford Stadium, but at least they got a chance to play the game they love.

As Smart said earlier this week, when asked about the value of finishing the season, “To me, the value is that’s why you play the game, to play the game. You play football to play the game. Everybody loses sight of that. There’s only one national champion last I checked in the system we have. … What you have is an opportunity to play the game, and go out there and compete against somebody.”

It has been a challenging season for Georgia head coach Kirby Smart and his staff. (Curtis Compton /AJC)

And, so, with Athletic Director Greg McGarity on his way out the door to retirement in the Sunshine State, the 7-2 Georgia Bulldogs have one more game to play. It might not be the game we wished for, but, with Smart and his staff having signed one of the nation’s top three recruiting classes  for a fifth straight year — including four 5-star prospects and eight who were ranked in the Top 100 — the Dawgs have, as I said, a bright future.

That leaves us to debate whether the 2020 season should be considered a successful one, or not.

If you judge things strictly on the basis of championship rings, and whether Georgia contends for a shot at a national title, then, no, it wasn’t.

But, let’s face it, viewing college football like that is going to suck all the joy out of the sport most years, for most fan bases, since only four of the 130 schools playing Division 1 football can achieve that status.

Sure, an elite program always has those goals, but circumstances don’t always cooperate.

And, as someone who, based on the personnel challenges they faced this year, predicted a 2-loss record for the Dawgs, I do consider a season that sees them playing in one of the New Year’s Six bowls to have been a success.

Back before the first game, I wrote in my preseason preview that “going 8-2 against an all-SEC schedule with a new quarterback would be a respectable outcome for this out-of-the-ordinary season.”

Thanks to the Vandy cancellation, it’ll take a win in the bowl game for Georgia to match that projected record, but, no matter. I still think it’s a respectable outcome.