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Georgia looks like the best team in the SEC when JT Daniels cleared to pilot offense

091821 Athens: Georgia quarterback JT Daniels passes on the opening drive on the way to a 7-0 lead over South Carolina during the first quarter in a NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept 18, 2021, in Athens. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

ATHENS — Georgia football staked its claim as the best team in the SEC on Saturday night, and the Bulldogs can be even better.

It’s as simple as turning JT Daniels loose.

Georgia scored a decisive 40-13-win over South Carolina at Sanford Stadium, its offense looking more proficient than ever with Daniels back under center.

Daniels, who sat out the 56-7 win over UAB the week before with a strained oblique muscle, finished 23-of-31 passing for 303 yards with 3 TDs and quickly put the hurt on the Gamecocks.

Daniels completed his first five passes to five different receivers and proved exceptional on third-down throws: 7-for-7 passing for 65 yards and six first downs.

The only person capable of stopping Daniels on Saturday night was Kirby Smart.

The head coach did that three times against South Carolina despite having all the best intentions.

Georgia was up 14-0 with Daniels having piloted the offense down the field on two impressive 6-play, 75-yard touchdown drives when Stetson Bennett trotted on the field.

It was likely pre-planned to use Bennett on the third series, perhaps a reward for his 10-of-12, 288-yard, 5 TD passing performance last week against UAB.

But after handing off once, Bennett sailed a pass over the head of Brock Bowers that was intercepted and returned 35 yards to the Georgia 12.

The Georgia defense held and denied South Carolina the sort of momentum underdogs need to pull off upsets.

Smart, to his credit, nipped any notion of continuing the quarterback rotation in the first half.

Daniels, to this point unflappable as the Georgia quarterback, settled back into rhythm and went back to taking care of business.

Until, that is, late in the second quarter when the coaches appeared to put the clamps on the Georgia pass game at midfield.

Georgia took over at its own 35 with 2:45 left in the half and James Cook broke a 19-yard gain to move the ball into South Carolina territory.

The Bulldogs ran Zamir White on first down (plus-3), James Cook (plus-4) on second down, and then South Carolina hit Kenny McIntosh in the backfield on a third down-run.

All this with the most accurate quarterback in the SEC under center.

But again, the defense bailed out a curious offensive coaching decision.

Nolan Smith sacked Luke Doty for safety after Jake Camarda buried the Gamecocks at their own 1-yard line with a perfect punt downed by Ameer Speed.

Georgia took possession at its own 42 after the ensuing free-kick, and Daniels put on an aerial display that featured three completions that covered 39 yards in 14 seconds.

It set up a Jack Podlesny field goal that made it 26-6 at the half.

Smart, interviewed at the half, made it clear Daniels had reminded him what the Bulldogs have at the position.

“He’s playing with a lot of confidence right now, he knows what he’s doing, he knows where he wants to go with the ball,” Smart said. “He’s doing a great job managing the offense.”

Indeed, and the one interception Daniels threw in the second half — hanging up a pass John Fitzpatrick didn’t come back for aggressively — should do nothing to shake that confidence.

And yet, Smart entered Bennett back in the game with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, and the Bulldogs offense went three-and-out.

Surely Smart can see there’s no reason for any more Georgia quarterback rotations or conservative play calling in two-minute drills.

The Bulldogs look like the best team in the SEC -- and maybe the nation -- when Daniels is allowed to compliment the most dominant defensive front in the nation.

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