Georgia wide receiver George Pickens (1) and tight end Darnell Washington (0) are two potentially big targets in the Bulldogs' passing game against Michigan. Photo by Tony Walsh)
Tony Walsh

3 things atop Georgia football list entering Orange Bowl CFP Semifinal practices for Michigan

ATHENS — Georgia football bowl prep began with a camp-like feel on Friday and Saturday, turning the page on an SEC Championship Game loss.

The No. 3-ranked Bulldogs will be trying to win a College Football Playoff Championship after losing in a conference championship game.

Georgia plays No. 2-ranked Michigan at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 31 in the Orange Bowl CFP Semifinal in Miami Gardens, Fla.

RELATED: Kirby Smart putting College Football Playoff puzzle together amid distractions

Kirby Smart has his hands full, but it’s a sure thing the head coach will present a calm front with no panic buttons pushed.

Georgia has plenty of time to go in whatever direction Smart chooses on offense and defense, his team filled with talented players who have grown enough to adapt to the scheme of choice.

Smart has proven himself capable more than once when given time to prepare for big games.

The Bulldogs have won their past two New Year’s Six bowl games in Top 10 showdowns despite having several players opt out of action in each game with injuries, suspensions or to prepare for the NFL draft.

It bodes well that Smart has shown he can pick his team back up after a disappointing loss in the SEC Championship Game, the 2019 Bulldogs rebounding from the 37-10 loss to LSU with a Sugar Bowl win over Baylor.

The College Football Playoff presents a different scenario, with players taking a different protocol knowing the team’s optimum team goal is at stake.

Here are three priorities for Georgia as it will go beyond workouts and begin bowl practice in full this week:

Quarterback situation

No one expects sudden transparency or explanations from Smart about how the position will be managed leading into the Orange Bowl.

Smart has maintained to treat it like any other, with competition in practice and the best player getting the starting job. If Smart is taken at his word, he said after the 41-24 loss to Alabama that he has confidence in Stetson Bennett and JT Daniels.

The quarterbacks have different strengths, as Smart explained in an exclusive interview with ESPN last October.

Bennett offers a degree of mobility and has been more effective in play-action situations than the dropback game.

Bennett has six first-down runs on 11 third-down rushing attempts vs. SEC teams, along with six sacks on the 65 third-down plays he didn’t handoff in league play.

Daniels is the more polished and accurate passer, with 90-percent of his third-down throws against the three SEC teams he faced going for first downs to Bennett’s 31-percent first down conversion rate on third-down throws against league teams.

The status and health of the receivers could factor into Smart’s decision. George Pickens will be three weeks healthier, and the Bulldogs must find a way to get this talented player more than two catches if he plays in the bowl game. Tight end Darnell Washington is another super talent who has been getting better each week after being slowed by a foot injury and should get more targets.

Another factor is the confidence UGA has in offensive tackles Jamaree Salyer and Warren McClendon. Michigan features dangerous pass rushers Aidan Hutchinson (the Heisman Trophy runner-up) and David Ojabo.

Smart must also evaluate the likelihood of the run game having success, as it keys the play-action style that replaced the Pro Style Spread as UGA’s primary offense once Daniels was sidelined by injuries.

The secondary

The secondary has been suspect throughout the season, and the Georgia players have said as much, sharing more than once that mistakes have been masked by a dominant front seven.

Alabama Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young showed what can happen when the rush doesn’t get home, however, torching the Bulldogs for an SEC-record 421 yards passing in the Tide’s 41-24 win in the SEC title game.

The star position has been the challenge Smart expected it to be when he signed West Virginia All-American Tykee Smith out of the transfer portal. Smith suffered a foot injury that forced him to miss the first five games of the season and played one game (Auburn) before sustaining a season-ending knee injury.

Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara doesn’t have the same sort of mobility, but he doesn’t turn the ball over, and the Wolverines will have one of the more efficient run games Georgia has seen.

Michigan plays physical football and would mirror the Bulldogs in some ways if Smart opts to stick with the ground-and-pound, and that means run support will be key.

RELATED: Numbers game, how Michigan and Georgia compare statistically speaking

The Georgia secondary will still need to heed the deep ball: Michigan leads the nation or is tied for the most number of plays over 50 yards (17), 60 yards (10) and 70 yards (6).

The Wolverines also have 21 plays over 40 yards to Georgia’s 12 (64th in the nation).

The mindset

It certainly sounds easy enough to rally together for a charge at the championship, but there are a lot of moving pieces for coaches and players.

Smart and his staff have been stressed with a strong finish to the early signing date recruiting season and must quickly mesh back with the team and take its pulse.

There have been plenty of injuries to overcome and distractions since the start of the season with assistant coach Scott Cochran taking a leave of absence, LSU transfer Arik Gilbert parting from team activities and team captain Adam Anderson indefinitely suspended after the Florida game.

Beloved defensive coordinator Dan Lanning will remain through the end of the season, but there are only 24 hours in a day, and Lanning has to put together an Oregon staff and keep an eye on the program that’s signing him for tens of millions of dollars.

This Georgia team has several leaders and has grown closer over the past two seasons after many players opting to return for another season to chase a championship while improving NFL draft stock.

The Bulldogs will certainly set a new team record for players picked in the NFL draft, exceeding last year’s total of 9.

The players on the verge of leaving the program for the NFL — there could be up to 15 — will need to compartmentalize and stay focused on the task at hand.

Nothing less than Georgia’s best will be enough to beat a Michigan team that’s operating with synergy.

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