ATHENS — Georgia coach Kirby Smart didn’t attempt to downplay his concerns heading into the pivotal showdown in Florida against the Gators on Saturday.
Smart is 9-5 in games against Top 10 teams, and he’s won three straight against Florida, but the Bulldogs’ offense has struggled and turned the ball over five times in the past two games.
Georgia ranks just 11th in the SEC in Red Zone efficiency, and its 58-percent TD ratio ranks 10th in the league — in contrast to the Gators’ league-leading 76-percent Red Zone scoring efficiency and Redt Zone TD ratio.
Smart said quarterback Stetson Bennett had some good practices this week, but he still made mistakes, and the head coach indicated that can’t keep happening.
“He’s got to be smarter with the ball, at the end of the day, you can’t turn the ball over physically, meaning, from him fumbling it, and then also from decisions you make of where you throw it,” Smart said on his coaches show on Thursday night.
“Now, interceptions are going to happen. We saw that with Jake (Fromm), who was a very low interception guy. (Fromm) had tipped balls, he had things happening, he had it go through receivers’ hands, so sometimes things are going to happen.
“But you can’t have poor decisions, whether they result in interceptions or not, because at that point it starts to question your decision making.”
Smart said Georgia practiced the starters against the second-team instead of the scout team more often this week in an effort to replicate the higher level of play he anticipates from the Gators.
Asked about Bennett’s confidence level heading into the 3:30 p.m. game in Jacksonville, Fla., Smart qualified it.
“As confident as he can be with all the things he gets to hear,” Smart said. “He obviously knows early on we didn’t have a lot of confidence in him, because we didn’t put him in there initially, and so he’s earned that in terms of practice, and leading, and being around the team and showing them he can make the correct decisions.”
Smart originally projected that former USC quarterback and redshirt sophomore JT Daniels would be recovered from his knee injury in time for the opening game. But when that didn’t happen, redshirt freshman D’Wan Mathis got the start in the opening game.
Bennett came on in relief of Mathis and played well. But as the season has progressed, defenses have dialed in on Bennett’s limitations and schemed more aggressively
Mathis has not played meaningful snaps since the opening game.
Daniels, who completed more passes in the first half of last year’s USC opener (25) than Bennett has in a game this season, has yet to debut with the Bulldogs.
Bennett’s 72-percent completion rate on third downs has been something Smart has applauded, along with the team’s relatively good third-down conversation rate (.467), which ranks sixth in the SEC.
But Smart acknowledges there are still other growing pains in an offense that features several new starters.
ESPN analyst Jordan Rodgers revealed the Bulldogs’ receivers have also played a role in how new offensive coordinator Todd Monken has been limited growing the UGA offense.
“Going through growing pains offensively, obviously, but it’s one of those things it wasn’t going to just miraculously turn into this high-powered juggernaut,” Smart said. “We lost six or seven guys that were drafted on offense.
“There were a lot of good players that were on that team that we’re having to replace.”
Indeed, offensive tackles Andrew Thomas and Isiah Wilson were first-round draft picks, tailback D’Andre Swift was a second-round pick, offense guard Solomon Kindley was a fourth-round pick, quarterback Jake Fromm went in the fifth round and Charlie Woerner was selected in the sixth round.
Additionally, veteran receivers Lawrence Cager and Tyler Simmons signed free-agent contracts, along with tight end Eli Wolf.
“We’re young and we’re growing, I’m pleased with the progress with what we’re doing in practice and getting better,” Smart said. “I want it to show in a game and want everyone to see what we’ve seen in practices, and hopefully we can play well and get to show that.
“If we don’t we’re going to keep working at it.”
SEC Red Zone Touchdown Ratio
1. Florida, 76 percent
2. Alabama, 72 percent
3. S. Carolina, 72 percent
4. Texas A&M, 67 percent
4. Tennessee, 67 percent
6. Ole Miss, 66 percent
7. Auburn, 64 percent
8. LSU, 63 percent
9. Arkansas, 61 percent
10. Georgia, 58 percent
11. Kentucky, 56 percent
12. Missouri, 47 percent
13. Vanderbilt, 40 percent
14. Miss. State, 25 percent
Georgia-Florida Game Week