ATHENS — Kirby Smart says it’s a matter of going back to work this week, but surely the Georgia head coach knows it will take more than that after his program fell out of the Top 10 for the first time since 2016.
Smart, the coach who famously says “if it ain’t broke, find a way to make it better,” must also know that when it’s broke, sometimes it needs more than fixing.
It needs replacing.
That’s the case at quarterback, with a noon game at Missouri on deck for the No. 12-ranked Bulldogs.
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The 2020 season has been unlike any before it, with training and practices schedules turned upside down.
Smart said it best when he stated the program that adapted best would prevail.
Georgia, with all its talent and the level of buy in Smart opened the season with, appeared primed for a championship run right through halftime of its Oct. 17 showdown at Alabama.
The Bulldogs, their elite defense healthy and intact, George Pickens still lined up wide on offense, led the Tide, 24-20 through 30 minutes.
Think about it: Less than a month ago UGA was leading the No 1 team in the nation on the road at halftime.
But then Alabama’s defense adjusted and shut out the Georgia offense the final 30 minutes.
Other defenses have followed suit, bringing more defenders closer to the line, challenging UGA to beat them deep with QB Stetson Bennett.
Bennett has six interceptions and three fumbles in the past three games, just 32-of-69 passing (46 percent).
Smart wanted an offense that was efficient and wouldn’t turn the ball over, and that’s how Bennett looked against Arkansas and most parts of the Auburn and Tennessee games.
But things changed at Alabama with three interceptions and seven batted or tipped balls.
Two more interceptions and another fumble followed at Kentucky, and then the Florida debacle, where there was another interception with the game in the balance at the Gators’ 35-yard line.
The Good, The Bad, The Ugly
Meanwhile, the defense has been dealing with injuries, victimized by a front-loaded schedule that was trouble from the time it was released.
More: Senior team captain Richard LeCounte suffered injuries in a Halloween Night motorcycle accident that have him sidelined. And now there are questions about Pickens’ future, the star receiver frustrated by his inability to get the football in a limited offense.
The good news is offensive coordinator guru Todd Monken earned his paycheck in Florida, breathing life into the offense by stealing 14 points on the opening two series.
The 3-tight end, 2-back formation and shift was pulled out of his bag of tricks on the opening play, and Monken followed with a well-scripted 6-play, 61-drive that made it 14-0.
But then Bennett took a hit to his throwing shoulder and his arm got weaker and even less accurate.
Smart failed to take his own advice: Georgia did not adapt.
Instead, Smart said, Bennett wanted to keep playing and Smart signed off on it until the team fell behind by 20 points in the third quarter.
It was a decision that showed the level of conviction Smart has had in Bennett amidst circumstances that have offered opportunities for change.
Personnel and Personal Decisions
This is where one wonders: Was it maybe not such a good thing when Smart said he grew closer to this team than any other because of how recruiting restrictions gave him more time around the players?
The Kirby Smart that Georgia fans had come to know the first four seasons was a thorough, calculated and sometimes even cold decision maker.
Smart wasn’t all about the warm fuzzies — he was about fire and high standards on the sidelines, and the celebrating and hugs were saved for post-game victories.
Can Georgia get back the Kirby that “wanted to eat!” The one that said “How about them ‘expletive’ Dawgs” with national cameras peeping in on a post-game press conference?
This isn’t to suggest Smart has gone soft. That’s not in his DNA.
But it’s reasonable to suggest that perhaps the closer relationships Smart formed with players have affected personnel decisions.
Stetson Bennett is an undersized South Georgia kid that not many people had heard of or given a chance to before he came to Athens.
Does Smart, subconsciously, see some of himself in Bennett?
Smart hired Monken to open up the Georgia offense with Air Raid principles. Monken has done just that, even if the results aren’t on par with programs running similar schemes.
The issue is the offense, like any other, needs a quarterback that can make the deep throws.
D’Wan Mathis could make the deep throws, but he’s still working on the consistency of his accuracy and the touch throws needed at intermedia levels.
Could USC transfer JT Daniels be ready to be the answer?
Smart and Monken had a complete season of USC film to watch the former 5-star quarterback in action before they offered him a scholarship and chance to compete.
The decision played a role in Wake Forest graduate transfer Jamie Newman leaving. Why bring in Daniels if things were going well with Newman?
Because they weren’t, Newman wasn’t fitting into the scheme, and that became obvious enough to him after one scrimmage that he left.
The first time Smart called on Daniels to compete, he was wearing a heavy knee brace and not at full speed in those fall scrimmages.
Smart said Saturday night Daniels got a “ton of reps” in the preseason, along with Mathis.
But once Daniels wasn’t cleared to play before the season-opening game, Smart said he moved Daniels to the scout team. Smart said at the time it’s hard to compete once the season starts.
Bennett has been Smart’s guy at quarterback since then, Mathis has worked with the twos, and Daniels has been on the scout team except for the off week.
Smart said Daniels and Mathis worked with the second team during the bye week — but not the first team — as Bennett continued to get all of those reps.
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So what happens this week?
Does Smart stick with Bennett exclusively on the first team, or does Daniels get a chance to get back in the mix?
What does the future of the Georgia football offense look like this week?
What better place to find out than in the “Show Me” State.
Smart’s quarterback decision will speak volumes about the direction of the program, with fans and recruits watching intently.