ATHENS — Georgia football coach Kirby Smart insists on a standard of play regardless of the opponent throughout this season, and that will certainly be put to the test on Saturday.
The No. 5-ranked Bulldogs (9-1) play host to UMass (4-7) at 4 p.m. at Sanford Stadium (TV: SEC Network, Radio: WSB 750 AM, 95.5 FM) in what many view as a walkover.
Georgia opened as a 43.5-point favorite, but Smart explained he will keep his eyes on the field, as much as the scoreboard.
The Bulldogs have games with Georgia Tech and Alabama looming, and the head coach is on the lookout for any emerging talent that can enhance the program’s championship hopes.
Georgia sits No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings, the third edition having been released on Tuesday night. Undefeated teams Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame claim the top three spots, while 9-1 Michigan comes in ahead of the 9-1 Bulldogs.
Smart said the opening week he had no interest in the rankings, explaining that “what matters is how you play, if you want to impress those guys, go play well.”
Georgia would seem to control its own destiny, if one assumes it would jump Alabama and/or Michigan with wins over UMass, Georgia Tech and the Crimson Tide in the Dec. 1 SEC Championship Game.
CFB Playoff committee chairman Rob Mullens said of the Bulldogs on Tuesday night that: “Obviously their last three wins were extremely impressive, and the bounce-back from the loss at LSU. You look at those, coupled with their only loss to a ranked LSU team, we see a very competitive team, strong defense. Offense continues to make strides.”
Clearing the bench
Smart said he’s not assuming anything when it comes to the game with UMass on Saturday, but there’s a reality to this sort of non-conference game that he’s not ignoring.
“We have to get better, and that’s what our focus is this week, on us getting better, our ability to grow young players,” Smart said at his press conference earlier this week. “I put just as much emphasis in practice as I do in the game. So we’ll see how the game goes. If guys get to play, they get to play.”
Smart told his team at the beginning of the season that they would need to improve each week to accomplish their goals, and along the way, quality depth has been built and emerged.
Many will be on the lookout for when freshman quarterback Justin Fields enters the game for starter Jake Fromm. Fields has provided a valuable lift in a short-yardage package, but he struggled against Auburn last Saturday on a Red Zone possession, taking a costly sack.
Smart is concerned with Georgia’s depth on the offensive line with offensive guards Ben Cleveland (leg), Cade Mays (shoulder) and Kendall Baker (knee) all at less than 100 percent.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever had a year that I’ve coached when we’ve had an offensive line as thin as this,” Smart said. “All the years at LSU and Alabama, we had depth in our lines. We’ve had depth (this year), but it’s slowly and surely deteriorated. We don’t have a lot of depth now.”
Smart indicated Mays and Baker could be out for the UMass game. Cleveland is practicing and saw his first action last Saturday since suffering a broken left fibula on Sept. 22 against Missouri.
Georgia rushed for more than 300 yards in each of the past two games, wins over Kentucky (34-17) and Auburn (27-10), but Smart points out the attrition is relatively recent.
“The last two games we really haven’t been that banged up when you think about it,” Smart said. “Last game it was really just Ben, and now it’s Cade (Mays) and Kendall (Baker), and Ben’s a little banged up, too.’’
Georgia’s secondary is the strongest unit on the team, but that hasn’t stopped Smart and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker from continuing the competition and adjusting as they see fit.
Redshirt freshman Eric Stokes replaced true freshman starter Tyson Campbell in the second quarter of the Bulldogs’ 27-10 win over Auburn and didn’t come back out. Stokes had a valuable pass break-up in the end zone that relegate the Tigers to a field goal and what was then a 10-6 lead.
“Stokes has been going with the first group but he’s competing, playing well, (and) so is Tyson,” Smart said. “He’s just smart, bright, and he understands leverage and , he coverages. You tell him something once and he goes out to practice and does it. A lot of the guys need reps and reps; Stokes gets it in the meetings. He’s very bright. He’s very diligent.”
True freshman Otis Reese made his first career start at safety on Saturday, too.
UMass is one of six FBS independent schools, transitioning to college football’s top level after two years as a transition member in 2011 and 2012.
The Minutemen feature one of the top receivers in the nation in Andy Isabella, a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award. Isabella, 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, has 87 catches for 1,479 yards and 11 touchdowns this season.
Coach Mark Whipple is in his fifth year of his second term leading the program. He was also the head coach from 1998-2003, leading UMass to the 1998 Division I-AA (now FCS) national championship.
UMass is coming off a 35-16 home loss to fellow FBS independent BYU, and barring an upset win over Georgia will finish 4-8 for a second consecutive season.
Last season’s UMass team played Tennessee and Mississippi State relatively close, losing to the Vols in Knoxville 17-13, and falling at Mississippi State 34-23 before scoring a noteworthy win at BYU 16-10.
The 2018 Minutemen fell to the only Power 5 conference team they played this season at Boston College in Week Two, 55-21.