ATHENS — Not here to say I told you so. To be honest, the way this quarterback competition has gone the last couple of weeks, I could have seen it going either way.
That said, I did opine a week ago that I thought this is the way it should go. So, yes, I think this is a good move for first-year Georgia coach Kirby Smart and his staff to go with Greyson Lambert as the starting quarterback in Game 1.
Just from observing football from all these many years and watching what I believe to be great coaches coach all that time, I have believed this would the inevitable conclusion for a while. And, really, I think the outcome would have been the same if the Bulldogs were opening the season against Nicholls State rather than North Carolina in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game, as they will at the Georgia Dome on Saturday (5:30 p.m., ESPN).
It’s easy for fans to say, “what have you got to lose? Just throw the freshmen in there and see what he can do.” But here’s what you’ve got to lose — the ballgame — and last time I checked on Kirby Smart, he’s not much into losing. Not to mention Eason’s confidence if he were to have his head handed to him.
Granted, Eason is a great quarterback. Or, to be more accurate, he was a phenomenal quarterback in high school and stands to be a good one in college. But it’s a substantial leap from suburban Seattle prep ball to the Power 5 ball in the South. Throw in a domed stadium, 80,000 people, bright lights, television, a 40-second clock, hand signals, fake hand signals, disguised coverages and, well, this ain’t Friday night lights where we all meet for a milkshake after the big game.
Just ask Eric Zeier and Matthew Stafford about making that transition. Both of those former Georgia players were Eason’s equal — at least — coming out of high school. Both were considered the No. 1 prospect in the country at their position. Both came in as early enrollees with experienced veterans ahead of them.
Neither one started their first game. In fact, neither started their first few games.
Eventually, they both took over before their freshman seasons were over, and that might be the eventual outcome here. But neither lit it up individually. Stafford had seven touchdowns and 13 interceptions after taking over for good midway through the year. Zeier had seven touchdowns and seven interceptions after getting the nod over senior Greg Talley at midseason. Neither team had great success either. Zeier’s 1991 Bulldogs went 9-3 (4-3 SEC) and Stafford’s team going 9-4 and 4-4 in conference play.
In fact, to date, Tennessee’s Erik Ainge remains the last true freshman quarterback in the SEC to lead his team to a division title. None have won the overall conference championship, and there have been somewhere around 40 true freshman quarterbacks end up as the primary starting quarterback in the past 20 years.
And say what you will about the Bulldogs’ competition with Lambert under center last year, Georgia won 10 of the 12 games in which he started. In the ones he lost, he actually played very well in the 38-31 defeat at Tennessee last October. He did not play well — nor did any of his teammates, for that matter — in the 38-10 loss to Alabama in monsoon-like conditions. Meanwhile, Lambert did not play in the humiliating loss to Florida, which might be notable in and of itself.
Now as far as Georgia’s game plan for North Carolina, that’s not going to look much different under Lambert than it would Eason, save for maybe a slightly higher level of sophistication. Everybody likes to write about how bad the Tar Heels’ defense was last year. They were among the worst in the country against the run, giving up 645 yards to Baylor in the Russell Athletic Bowl and finishing 121st of 127 teams in rushing defense (247.4 ypg).
But as I’ve pointed out before about Chizik, the Tar Heels were the nation’s most improved defense in Power 5 football in 2015. As bad as they were at times last year — they went 11-3 overall — they gave up 14.5 fewer points a game than the previous season.
This isn’t a defense to be trifled with. They have a lot to prove, and are even more motivated at the thought Georgia would think of pitching a freshman against them.
The remaining unknown is whether we’ll see Eason on the field at all Saturday. I expect to see him out there at some point. In fact, he’s slated to handle holding duties on placement kicks. But I think the coaches will have a plan for getting him in at quarterback. They want to see what he can do under real-game conditions as much as everybody else. Alas, none of us can be sure what he’ll look like.
Talking about this Thursday morning, my colleague Seth Emerson made a good point about Lambert. A year later, Smart, offensive coordinator and quarterback’s coach Jim Chaney and an entirely new offensive staff came to the exact same conclusion on the quarterback position that a completely different staff came to last year — that Lambert gave Georgia the best option to win.
Folks, there aren’t any politics involved at this level. The plan is to bring along the hot-shot, five-star freshman slowly and let the experienced graduate handle run out on the big stage first.
That’s the right call.