3 things on Georgia Sugar Bowl: Legacy at stake, potential Justin Fields farewell
NEW ORLEANS — Kirby Smart can’t wait for Georgia to take the field for the Sugar Bowl on Tuesday night, if only to escape all of the off-field distractions and put a cap on what has been a rewarding, but at times trying, season.
“The last I guess 30 days, 31 days, whatever it has been since our last game, have been wild and crazy because there’s been a lot of action,” Smart said at his press conference on Monday. “ in all of college football, but especially with the University of Georgia., and we’re really excited to get back out on the field and play a game.”
The No. 5-ranked Bulldogs (11-2) showed great improvement from the start of the season to the finish before falling just short of knocking off perennial power Alabama in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 1.
Since, Smart has learned that talented freshman quarterback Justin Fields has interest in transferrin, and a handful of juniors could be ready to leave the program despite not having first- or second-round projected NFL Draft status.
Here are three things about the 8:45 p.m. Tuesday night game against No. 15 Texas (9-4) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
What was supposed to be a rebuilding season turned into an agonizingly close run to return to the College Football Playoffs, due in large part to an impressive group of leaders that stepped up.
The Bulldogs were tasked with replacing five of their starting front seven from a season ago, including SEC Defensive Player of the Year Roquan Smith, along with NFL starting running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michele and leading receiver Javon Wins.
A championship run was forecasted for 2019, but players like sophomore quarterback Jake Fromm, junior safety J.R. Reed and seniors Jonathan Ledbetter and D’Andre Walker stepped up in the leadership department and the team stayed bought in.
Smart correctly said Monday that, “everything that we’ll be judged on is how we finish, and we want to finish the right way.”
A win over Texas would provide great moment for a 2019 Georgia program looking to win the national championship.
Fields, the much-hyped in-state freshman from Kennesaw, has undeniable talent and upside that warrants the rock star attention he has received as each turn.
Smart and the Georgia program stayed focused and on track despite the potentially decisive quarterback situation, a sign that both Fields and Fromm handled the competition properly on the field and in the locker room.
Fields played in 12 of 13 games and put up solid numbers: 27-of-39 passing for a 173.72 pass efficiency rating while also rushing for 266 yards at 6.3 yards a clip.
It was clear Fields wasn’t as advanced in the offense or as quick to get through progressions as the much more experienced Fromm, his talents are such that he’s a safe bet to grow rapidly with playing time and evolve into a collegiate star and NFL quarterback prospect.
Those talents made it that much harder for a player of Fields’ skills to play an understudy role to Fromm, however deserving Fromm was of the starting role this season.
If Fields does indeed transfer, which many believe he will likely do, he will have played a much larger for role for the Bulldogs off the field than on it.
It was Fields’ commitment and signing that enabled Georgia to sign the No. 1-ranked recruiting class in the nation, breaking Alabama’s grip on that unofficial title and helping to change the perception of the Bulldogs program.
Georgia has indeed developed and deserved an identify of “dynasty in the making,” one more reason Smart stressed the need to play up to that elite standard — with or without Fields moving forward.
Georgia’s only projected first-round pick is senior cornerback Deandre Baker, who decided to sit out the Sugar Bowl and protect his future earnings potential.
But there are a handful of other Bulldogs’ players considering turning pro, even though their current draft stock is not projected in the first or second round.
Among the UGA players who could be playing their final college game in the Sugar Bowl: WR Riley Ridley, FS J.R. Reed, TE Isaac Nauta, PK Rodrigo Blankenship, WR Mecole Hardman and RB Elijah Holyfield.
The good news for Georgia is that 68 percent of its roster is made up of freshmen and sophomores, so the Bulldogs will be able to sustain attrition beyond the five departing senior starters.
With Baker deciding not ti play and Walker limited or sidelined by a groin injury, the Bulldogs are expected to start two seniors on offense (OC Lamont Gaillard, WR Terry Godwin) and two seniors on defense (DE Jonathan Ledbetter, LB Juwan Taylor).