NEW ORLEANS – Welcome to the Distraction Bowl, also known as the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
The Texas Longhorns may have their own name for it, but for the Georgia Bulldogs, that’s what this week’s field trip has become.
Georgia got one more on Thursday. Distraction, that is. Moments after touching down at Louis Armstrong Airport and stepping off the Delta 777 to the peppy tunes of a second-line marching band called Third Line on a rain-swept tarmac, coach Kirby Smart revealed that his star cornerback Deandre Baker would not be playing in the bowl game after all.
Baker, an All-American and Jim Thorpe Award winner, had said upon receiving his awards in early December that he intended to participate in the bowl, even though no championships were on the line. But he had a change of heart and, eventually, Baker changed his mind after returning home to Miami for Christmas. So, Baker’s here with the team and participating in all the Sugar Bowl activities and outings. But when it comes to football, he’s going to stay on the sideline and serve as a volunteer assistant coach and cheerleader.
Add that development to a growing heap of distractions for the Bulldogs. They include:
- Freshman quarterback Justin Fields entering the transfer portal and contemplating leaving UGA, yet accompanying the team here;
- Freshman tight end Luke Ford doing the same;
- Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker leaving UGA to become Colorado’s new head coach;
- Tucker taking at least three support staffers with him;
- Several juniors still considering early-entry in the NFL draft.
- An agonizingly close loss to No. 1 Alabama in the SEC Championship and subsequent snub from the College Football Playoff selection committee.
- The Bulldogs landing amid tornado warnings scattered throughout greater New Orleans on Thursday afternoon.
“It’s not really a distraction,” insisted senior defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter, one of Georgia’s team leaders. “Everybody has their own path, everyone has to make their own decisions and everyone’s their own individual man. … So, it’s not a distraction for us. We’re still keeping the main thing the main thing.”
As for flying into Southern Louisiana in the midst of sideways rain, Ledbetter groaned. “Yeah, it was a little bit bumpy for like 10 minutes.”
It’s been a little bumpy for the better part of three weeks, really. Georgia can only hope that its ride smooths out from here because, regardless of the continuing saga that has become the 2018 postseason, the No. 5 Bulldogs (11-2) and the No. 15 Longhorns (9-4) will still face off in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome Tuesday night at 8:45 p.m. Meanwhile, that burnt-orange bunch touched down a little ahead of Georgia, all loosey-goosey and with nothing to lose.
The Bulldogs arrived in the Big Easy on Thursday as 13-point favorites, per VegasInsider.com. The Baker news is likely to move that downward at least a smidge. So managing all these distractions has become the top priority for Smart and Bulldogs.
Smart seemed almost relieved to finally get to the bowl site Thursday.
“I’m glad we’re able to tighten (the schedule) and get a little closer to the game just so we can get our team prepared and ready to play,” Smart said in a brief news conference in a private terminal at the airport. “But you think of the Sugar Bowl and the history that Georgia has, I know a lot of our fan base is excited.”
They’re excited about the matchup, just a little concerned about all the developing drama. Losing the country’s best shutdown corner against a Big 12 opponent that’s pretty decent at throwing the ball around is just the latest issue. The Bulldogs continue to grapple with the Fields-looking-to-transfer question.
Of course, Smart couldn’t hold a presser without being asked about that. Louisiana and Texas media wanted to get a fresh take on that high-profile subject, which Smart unflinchingly provided.
“Justin has been practicing with us throughout the bowl (practices),” Smart said. “He’s done a really good job of focusing on that and worrying about that. He’s our No. 2 quarterback going into the game. Absolutely.”
Smart made short work of the informal welcoming event. He took questions for less than five minutes, followed by an equally brief question-and-answer session with quarterback Jake Fromm and Ledbetter. The players followed their coach’s lead, deflecting any negative intrusion like a pesky fly and smiling for the cameras.
They seemed genuinely excited about spending an all-expense-paid week in the Crescent City and being greeted on the tarmac like visiting dignitaries.
“That was awesome,” said Fromm about the brass-band reception. “Honestly, I’m excited about just eating really good food. I love to eat. I love gumbo, some boudin (sausage), just any special Louisiana flavor I can get.”
Said Ledbetter: “I felt a little special. The band was playing, people were greeting us. It was just nice to get here and feel welcomed.”
And, hopefully, leaving behind all the drama.