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Tony Walsh/UGA
Zamir White, seen during preseason practice, and James Cook should continue the Dawgs tradition of productive tailbacks.

Football preview: What’s the outlook for the Dawgs in a season like no other?

Welcome to my pandemic bubble.

No, I’m not talking about the social-distancing, shelter-in-place kind of bubble.

And, I’m not talking about the kind of bubble that some professional sports leagues have tried operating in with some success.

The bubble I’m talking about is one in which, when it comes to the Junkyard Blawg, I’m going to try to put aside any concerns and questions I have about the path that the SEC and UGA have chosen lately, and deal with them elsewhere.

Instead, I’m going to focus here on just the football season that begins next weekend.

As long as Kirby Smart’s team is playing in this rejiggered, unpredictable season, I’ll be concentrating on what happens on the field — the X’s and O’s and scoreboard, if you will.

Quarterbacks D’Wan Mathis and JT Daniels both should see playing time this season, assuming Daniels is cleared to play. (Tony Walsh/UGA)

Who knows, the real world outside my bubble may force its way in — perhaps with teams not being able to field enough players for a game to take place, as already has happened elsewhere, or even with completion of the season eventually being threatened. If any of those things happen, they’ll be discussed here.

In the meantime, though, inside my bubble we’ll just be talking football. And, by that I mean the action on the field — not the handling of reduced-capacity crowds, team testing results ,or UGA’s no-tailgating-well-kinda-sorta policy recently announced.

So, with kickoff coming up Saturday in Fayetteville, it’s time for my annual assessment of how I think the Dawgs, ranked No. 4 going into the season, will fare in their 10-game, conference-only schedule — and, possibly, beyond.

Head coach Kirby Smart said that the naming of a starting quarterback for the opener against Arkansas could be “a game-time decision.” (Chamberlain Smith/UGA)

Let’s start out with a question I’ve been asked several times this week: Who’s your choice for starting QB?

Well, unfortunately, my first choice — Jamie Newman — decided to opt out.

Why he did that, we don’t really know. From all I’ve heard, he was unlikely to lose the starting job to JT Daniels. (As one friend put it, if that were the case, Daniels would be the clear favorite over D’Wan Mathis right now, and that doesn’t appear to be happening.)

Was Newman worried about the risks of playing a contact sport during a pandemic? Did he not get along with offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who was hired after Newman transferred? Was Newman miffed USC transfer Daniels was brought in after he’d arrived in Athens? Did he maybe just not feel as comfortable at UGA as he’d thought he would?

Or, if you want to take the cynical view, had he already gotten enough hype out of the transfer from Wake Forest to UGA to bolster his NFL stock, and so he concluded playing this season wasn’t worth the risk?

Maybe we’ll find out one day.

So, back to the question: Who do I think should start? Or, more precisely, who do I think is likely to start?

Due to the relative news blackout from the Dawgs’ preseason practices, we don’t have much to go on. Does it mean something that Mathis, who missed last season with brain surgery after looking impressive in the 2019 G-Day game, took most of the snaps with the first team in last week’s scrimmage?

Speaking to the media after this past Tuesday’s practice, Smart downplayed that speculation, saying they’ve been rotating which quarterback goes with the ones, and that was Mathis’ day.

Asked where he is with the decision on a starting QB, Smart noted that Daniels, who is coming off knee surgery that forced him to miss last season, is not yet completely cleared to play this season, though he added: “If we didn’t think he was going to be cleared, then we wouldn’t be practicing him. He is continuing to practice; so is D’Wan, Carson [Beck] and Stetson [Bennett]. As far as we can tell, it’s going to be a game-time decision.”

JT Daniels, seen here wearing a knee brace in preseason practice, transferred from Southern Cal after sitting out most of last season after injuring his ACL. (Tony Walsh/UGA)

That might mean it’s a toss-up. Daniels, who was a five-star prospect and ranked third in the nation in the 2018 class behind Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields, has the upper hand in experience, since he started his freshman season at Southern Cal. However, Mathis appears to be the more versatile player — he’s a dual threat with a big arm. Daniels primarily is a pocket passer. Plus, Mathis already is cleared to play.

For that reason, I’d give the edge to Mathis right now. The Georgia coaches know he’ll be able to go against Arkansas, but, as of this writing, they don’t know about Daniels yet.

Still, either way, until one player creates some distance between himself and the others (assuming that happens; it doesn’t always), I tend think the odds of Georgia getting reacquainted with a dual-quarterback system are even better now than they were when it was viewed as a contest between Newman and Daniels.

And, Smart didn’t disabuse anyone of that notion this week when he was asked whether it was possible the Dawgs would have rotating quarterbacks this season. His reply: “It could be, yes.”

As one friend said, it’s a good thing Georgia opens with Arkansas, but, as another friend noted, with Auburn coming up in the second game, there won’t be much time for either player to learn on the job.

Overall, the 2020 Dawgs boast perhaps the best defense in all of college football, but have major question marks on offense, with a new coordinator, new QB, mostly new offensive line and only one established go-to receiver.

It’s taken a while for the players to pick up new coordinator Todd Monken’s offense. (Chamberlain Smith/UGA)

Don’t underestimate the learning curve with Monken installing his offense, either. Ben Cleveland summed it up recently: “It was difficult not having spring ball. It really put a lot of stress on all of us to learn this new offense and pick up on everything in a lot shorter amount of time than what we normally would have.”

Still, the Dawgs do have a lot of talent on offense, young though it may be, and Zamir White and James Cook could become another change-of-pace tailback team like Chubb and Michel.

Breaking down the schedule, the first month looks kind of hairy for the Dawgs (sorry), what with Auburn, Tennessee and Alabama in consecutive weeks, while the last four games of the season should be their least challenging.

Alabama, which has won five in a row against Georgia, remains Smart’s white whale, and I’m not sure a team with an inexperienced offense provides his best shot of finally besting mentor Nick Saban. I consider this prime-time game on CBS one of the possible losses.

The Dawgs’ next biggest challenge, I think, will be Florida in Jacksonville. Dan Mullen’s Gators are this year’s media darling, and it is likely to be a closer game than the past three years, but I’m not completely sold on the Florida hype. Still, this one’s likely to be for the SEC East title.

At the next level, in terms of toughest games, Auburn, coming in just the second week, could be tricky. Bo Nix returns at QB, after an up-and-down freshman season, and he has a couple of the conference’s best receivers. Still, the Tigers must replace their leading rusher, and also are operating with a new offensive guru. And, their defense took a big hit from departures. How this one goes probably depends on the state of the Dawgs at quarterback.

Some observers also see Tennessee as one of Georgia’s tougher games. Jeremy Pruitt’s Vols did finish strong last year (after a terrible start) and have had some recruiting success, but it’s been quite a while since a UT team has lived up to its preseason hype.

Of the rest of Georgia’s opponents, Kentucky may be the most competitive, but the Dawgs clearly will be favored to beat the Wildcats, as well as Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Vanderbilt. Of course, there’s always the chance we could see another abysmal performance against an inferior foe by the Dawgs, as we did last season when they lost to a Gamecocks team that finished 4-8.

If that happens again, this could wind up being a 7-3 season, but, overall, this feels more like an 8-2 team (with Bama the most likely loss, and either Auburn or Florida the other).

If Georgia beats Florida, that probably puts the Dawgs into the SEC Championship Game, most likely a return engagement with the Crimson Tide.

Lose that one, and UGA’s playoff chances probably will be gone, now that the Big 10 has decided to play an abbreviated late schedule that has its championship game on Dec. 19, the day before the playoff participants are picked. When the Big 10 was planning on sitting out the fall, the SEC stood a decent chance of getting two of the four playoff spots; the Big 10’s change of heart, and the likelihood of Ohio State being in the playoff equation, changes that.

With Newman at QB, I thought Georgia had an outside shot at a playoff spot, but, without him, I’d say the odds are against that happening.

However, going 8-2 against an all-SEC schedule with a new quarterback would be a respectable outcome for this out-of-the-ordinary season.

Dawgs going retro

I’m generally pleased with the alternate uniforms for this season announced this past week — red britches with white jerseys against Arkansas and black jerseys with the regular silver britches in one of the home games. However, I’m glad that the standard uniforms — red jerseys and silver pants “are still the mainstay,”  as Senior Associate Athletic Director Claude Felton told me this week.

Georgia will suit up in red pants against Arkansas in honor of the 1980 national championship team, which wore red britches in its first game. (University of Georgia)

I think the return of the red britches, not seen since 1988, is a fitting nod to the 40th anniversary of Georgia winning the national championship (plus, the Dawgs will sport a special 1980 anniversary patch on their jerseys for that game).

The plan is for the uniforms for the Arkansas game to be a one-time thing to commemorate the 1980 season, but that sounds a bit wasteful for an athletic program that is facing a shortfall of about $55 million because of the effects of the pandemic. I hope the red road pants become at least a once-a-season option for the Dawgs in the future.

As for the return of black jerseys, I’ve been in favor of that all along, though I must say I’m not crazy about the hokey spike collar design around the neck of the latest version. It does amuse me that superstitious fans see the black jerseys as some sort of jinx, pointing out the Dawgs lost one time while wearing them, forgetting all the times they’ve lost in both the standard white and red jerseys.

Anyway, I know the players love changing up the look occasionally, so this is welcome news.

An early take on the Kirby Smart story

Smart is beginning only his fifth season as Georgia’s head coach, but it’s been a momentous four years, following a disappointing end to the Mark Richt era, so it’s not surprising there’s already a book chronicling it all.

Seth Emerson looks at the end of the Mark Richt era and the first four seasons under Kirby Smart in his new book. (Triumph)

The best thing about the recently published “Attack the Day: Kirby Smart and Georgia’s Return to Glory” ($28, Triumph) is that it’s written by Seth Emerson, formerly of Dawgnation.

Emerson has been covering the Dawgs long enough to add perspective to the story, and he’s gotten lots of insightful input from former players and coaches.

In the early part of the book, he writes about Richt’s final season, when the coaching staff was riven by internal strife, and some players felt burnt out by a misbegotten conditioning program and an overly complicated NFL-style offense.

The book makes clear the key role played by former Dawg and longtime UGA insider Mike Cavan in replacing Richt with Smart, and shows how the new Georgia coach got his recruiting locomotive rolling by ignoring pleas to “lock down” Georgia and instead going after the best players, no matter where they were from.

As Emerson emphasized in a Zoom appearance he made this past week courtesy of Athens’ Avid Bookshop, the key to Smart turning things around in his second season was the decision by Lorenzo Carter, Nick ChubbSony Michel and Davin Bellamy to return for one more year at UGA, showing they believed in the new coach.

A key moment, Emerson writes, was immediately after Georgia’s 2017 loss to Auburn. Figuring the Dawgs were going to meet the Tigers again three weeks later in the SEC Championship, Smart had the staff immediately break down the game film, so they could figure out what went wrong. It worked out beautifully.

However, the most interesting revelation in the book is a couple of players confirming what many fans thought after the overtime national championship loss to Bama: then-offensive coordinator Jim Chaney did indeed take his foot off the gas once Georgia was up 20-7, allowing the Tide to storm back. At one point, he even called the same play four straight times.

As former tight end Jeb Blazevich told Emerson, “the play-calling went from ‘let’s win the game’ to ‘let’s not lose the game.’”

The book whips through the 2018 and 2019 seasons fairly quickly, but hits the highs and lows, and presents an evenhanded view of the Jake Fromm-Justin Fields situation. It also shows that, however defensive he might seem when reporters ask about things that don’t work, Smart won’t sit on his hands when changes to the program need to be made.

Emerson told the Zoom audience he came away from researching the book with a lot more respect for Smart, but this isn’t a hagiography (and Smart didn’t cooperate in its writing). Smart can be cutthroat, he notes.

Overall, though, if you want a smart, knowing look inside the Smart years at UGA so far, this book comes highly recommended.

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