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John Amis/AJC
Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett IV runs for a touchdown against Tennessee.

Dawg highlights few and far between in a season deserving of an asterisk

It was a week where the SEC had five teams ranked in the AP poll, but only one of them took the field to play, as 30% of the college football games scheduled  for Saturday were canceled or postponed due to the pandemic, including the Dawgs’ visit to Missouri. Meanwhile, ESPN’s “College GameDay” originated from Augusta National as the Masters took precedence over college football. In November.

As my friend Doug Criss asked on Facebook this week, at what point do we just put a big ole asterisk by this season?

Certainly, many Dawgs fans already are inclined to write this year off as an unfortunate aberration, despite the fact that there still are four games of the revised 10-game all-conference schedule left to play.

Gators wide receiver Trevon Grimes makes a touchdown catch over UGA cornerback Tyson Campbell. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

While it’s always possible that current SEC East leader Florida could collapse down the stretch and lose two games, putting Georgia back in the division lead (if the Dawgs win out), a good sign that nobody really expects that came this week as the conference announced that makeup games, including probably Georgia-Mizzou, will take place on Dec. 19, the same day the SEC Championship Game is scheduled in Atlanta.

I wrote in my Blawg last week that the loss to Florida had made Georgia Mr. Irrelevant in the SEC East, and playing a rescheduled game on the same day somebody else is battling (probably) Alabama for the conference title definitely would drive that point home.

And, that’s making the very large assumption that those games will get played at all, and there won’t be more games derailed by COVID-19 that the SEC can’t find a way to reschedule. There’s also no guarantee the SEC Championship Game takes place on time. Likewise, the College Football Playoff.

“In normal times, our experience this week would be nothing short of extraordinary,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said Wednesday. “This year, with nothing being ordinary, this is a week unlike any other. I’ve repeatedly said the circumstances around the virus will guide our decisions. The reality is the virus, in some circumstances, determines our direction.”

Tailback Zamir White scores in the game against Auburn. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

Yes, in a season where the major college football conferences chose to try and play postponed seasons in a pandemic — against the advice of many public health experts — the virus remains the reality.

Of course, with that in mind, there’s also the chance that the season won’t be completed. And, even if it is, we might see some Georgia players who are looking to make the jump to the NFL next year deciding that there’s no point risking illness or injury to play out a division runner-up season in which none of their team’s preseason goals still are achievable.

Regardless of whether you blame the Dawgs’ current situation on the mess that the quarterback situation has become, an overall lack of offensive explosiveness, or a combination of injuries and bad luck, it’s not going to go down as one of those seasons that Georgia fans fondly recall years later.

Beyond the two embarrassing losses to Alabama and Florida, there really hasn’t been much to get excited about, so far, in terms of the Dawgs’ on-field results.

In a season that saw Georgia trailing at the half in a couple of the games it ended up winning, there haven’t been that many highlights to savor.

The play of Dawgs wide receiver Kearis Jackson, seen celebrating the win over Auburn, has been a highlight this season. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

There was the Tennessee game touchdown pass to defensive lineman Jalen Carter, who was brought in as part of offensive coordinator Todd Monken’s goal-line jumbo package.

Also, a couple of nice plays by unexpected starting quarterback Stetson Bennett IV early on, including his TD run against Tennessee, where he dove for the pylon; the third down against Auburn on which he rolled out under pressure and completed a key pass; and the perfectly thrown TD pass to George Pickens in the same game. 

But, overall, those big plays by Bennett are outweighed by the many open receivers he’s missed. 

The running game, meanwhile, looked great against Auburn, and a definite highlight was Zamir White’s 75-yard opening touchdown run against Florida, but that’s an outlier this season. Mostly, the running game has not been that big a factor — or hasn’t been given the chance to be the determining factor in a game, aside from the old-school win over Kentucky.

Special teams play was great for much of the season, but the punting lately has faltered.

Georgia’s defense looked great against the lesser teams in the conference, and got a lot of sacks, but it has been shredded by the only two top-notch offenses it has faced. 

I asked some Bulldog buddies for their season highlights, and, besides the ones I’ve mentioned, they came up with a handful more.

For longtime Atlanta sportscaster Bill Hartman, the high points came early: “The highlight of the season is Stetson Bennett saving the day at Arkansas! Unfortunately, his Jake Fromm-like intervention has led to the malaise the Dawgs are in right now. The modern SEC requires a big-time quarterback, and Stetson is not that.”

Bill noted that, two weeks ago, he got to see Georgia’s next-season QB commitment, Brock Vandagriff, lead Prince Avenue Christian to a win over Athens Academy. “He’s the real deal, and someone [in the quarterback room] will be entering the transfer portal soon,” Hartman said.
He also mentioned another highlight from the Arkansas game: “The shiny red pants looked great. I would like to see more of that.”

Joel Provano added to the list of highlights with “Monty Rice’s strip- and-score vs. Tennessee, which ended any hope of a Vols comeback — slim as they were.”

Larry Pope said that, aside from a few Bennett throws to Kearis Jackson and Pickens, “very few stand out, just an ordinary season. … Maybe that’s this year’s takeaway: ordinary.”

Darrell Huckaby admitted, “it is hard to come up with very many [highlights]. I was talking to my kids about this last Sunday, and we decided that the pick 6 by Erik Stokes Saturday was the best one for us, because we had lost the lead and felt momentum turning, and that gave us hope. That, and Bennett’s first TD pass to Pickens against Arkansas, are the two that we got the most excited about.”

It’s been “a weird season, to say the least,” said Owen Scott, adding that the first half against Bama, when Georgia led the Tide, was “the high water mark, then the floodgates opened, as we can’t defend a first-rate passing team consistently, even with all our defensive starters. Lack of pressure on [Florida QB Kyle] Trask was a big disappointment.”

Bill Bryant said it was “great to see Stetson, an undersized walk-on who had dreamed of being a Georgia Bulldog, play so well in the early going. But, as we’ve been cruelly reminded, this is no league for undersized walk-ons.”
Bill added, facetiously, “I’ve decided this season doesn’t count.”

Charlie Hayslett’s summation of the season so far: “This team was probably over-rated. SBIV was a perfectly adequate back-up QB who had a nice day in the sun until Alabama figured out he was short.”

Linebacker Monty Rice’s strip-and-score against Tennessee is one of the defensive highlights for Georgia. (John Amis/AJC)

Charlie added another negative note about this season: “The two frontrunners for the Heisman came out of Georgia, and neither one of them are playing for us.”

Kevin Whaley also mentioned Stokes’ pick-6 against the Gators, and another interception for a touchdown that Stokes had against Arkansas, plus Richard LeCounte picking off Mac Jones on the first play against Bama (though it didn’t amount to much as Georgia shortly turned the ball back over).

Kevin also was pleased by Jackson’s development as a receiver. And, he added, until the Florida game, he would have considered Georgia’s defensive alignment, preparation and adjustments a highlight, but “when you don’t cover the running back on the wheel route seven times, and simple motion totally throws you off, that strength goes out the window.”

If anything, Kevin said, Jordan Davis missing the game probably helped his pro prospects, because “his absence really makes a difference, as we figured it would. It also exposed our secondary. If the QB has time, they don’t look like 5-stars back there.” Plus, he added, “It sure would be nice to have a pass rush from all the 5- and 4-stars we’ve recruited.”

Kevin said that, “what sums up the season for me is watching Stetson Bennett throw an incomplete pass to Jaylen Johnson against Florida, and wondering how two former walk-ons ended up playing at all on a Top-5 team that won two so-called recruiting titles. How did we get here?”

My son Bill’s picks as Georgia’s highlights for the season are the previously mentioned touchdown pass to Pickens in the Auburn game, and the way the Dawgs played in the second half against Tennessee.

Otherwise, he said, it’s been a “pretty disappointing year for what should be the junior year of the No. 1 class (Justin Fields’ class). My hope is this is the humbling Kirby needed, and he gets a fire lit under him to rectify.”

My son thinks the remainder of this season “should be pointing toward getting ready for [next season’s] opener against Clemson, when they next are on a big stage. … I sincerely doubt Vandagriff will start that game, because of coming out of tiny-private-school ball. So, Kirby needs a real QB ready for that game.”

Cornerback Eric Stokes picks off a pass from Florida QB Kyle Trask and returns it 37 yards for his second touchdown of the season. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

I agree, and I’d like to see Georgia go ahead and move on from Bennett and D’wan Mathis. We’ve seen enough to know that neither is the answer the Dawgs are seeking. Bennett is too short, and doesn’t have a strong enough arm, and Mathis’ play is rough and his tendency to bail on the pocket problematic. He would be better off transferring to a smaller school, or going the junior college route, to get game experience. Georgia really can’t afford to wait for him to grow into the job.

True, Georgia’s receivers haven’t always held onto balls thrown to them, but the greater problem, as Smart noted this past week, has been the QBs’ accuracy. Targets have been getting open, but Bennett and Mathis too often have not been able to get the ball to them.

So, it’s time to give the other QBs on the roster a try. Whether it’s JT Daniels or Carson Beck, the Dawgs need someone to carry the load next year until Vandagriff is ready.

Daniels seems like the better pick, since he has a season of game experience and, as my son pointed out, he has a shorter horizon at Georgia, and can make way for Vandagriff more quickly, avoiding another why-is-your-5-star-QB-not-starting controversy for Smart. (Beck probably would transfer out in that scenario.)

As my son noted, “For better or worse, Vandagriff is going to need to work out for Kirby, because his record with QBs is so poor now, and he doesn’t want him transferring out, either.”

As for the current season, it’s been disappointing, but, let’s face it, this team may have spent half a season in the Top 5, but it is not a championship-caliber team.

It never was, though fans and media types alike allowed themselves to be convinced otherwise, based on preseason expectations and early wins over programs that, frankly, were overrated.

The defense is talented and good (though not quite as good as we thought early on), but the offense appears to be fatally flawed, now ranking No. 80 nationally in total offense and 87th in passing.

In this day and age, that’s not a formula for making the College Football Playoff, which is Georgia’s overall goal.

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