Suddenly the Bulldogs are covered up in distractions

UGA Notre Dame Football 2017
Make no mistake about it, Natrez Patrick (6) is a big-deal player on a big-deal defense.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – We interrupt all the talk and celebration about Justin Fields committing to Georgia to bring you this important news bulletin:

Georgia has a game to play today. And it’s a big one.

The No. 5-ranked Bulldogs (5-0, 2-0 SEC) visit Vanderbilt (3-2, 0-2) today at noon at Vanderbilt Stadium. While not necessarily a House of Horror for Georgia, the little venue it will play in today produced more than a few good scares for the Bulldogs.

And, you know, while Georgia enters today’s tilt as a 17.5-point favorite, it looks a little scary to me all the sudden.

Oh, I still think the Bulldogs are going to win. They better. They have a markedly better team and much more to play for, as usual.

But between Fields’ ballyhooed commitment, the ridiculously early kickoff and the other events of the last 24 to 36 hours, it kind of feels to me like the distractions coach Kirby Smart puts so much energy into avoiding are suddenly all upon this team.

I’ll get back to Fields in a moment. But one of the stories my editor had suggested I may consider doing this past week was something along the lines of, what could go wrong to mess up what Georgia has going on at the moment. I passed on it, for the time being at least, because it just felt like too negative of a slant on a situation and a season that was going so well.

But, of course, it got me to thinking. What could happen to kind of gum up the tracks on a season that was starting to look like it was about head downhill nice and smooth for a moment?

Of course, those things don’t usually change a lot from year to year. As always, injuries are a major concern. They’re always going to occur because this is football. It’s just a matter of how many and to whom.

Then there’s the perennial issue of discipline. Traditionally for Georgia this has been a bigger concern at the outset of the season than right here in the middle of it. But these are, after all, American males age 17 to 23. So, yeah, anything could happen at any time really.

And, finally, good old luck is always a part of this game we all love so much. It’s played with an oblong ball, which takes funny bounces from time-to-time. Sometimes it bounces your way and sometimes it doesn’t.

Ultimately, though, it always comes down to players and coaching. And, frankly, what I’d seen from the Bulldogs this first half of the 2017 season has told me they were in pretty good shape in that department.

That, and Georgia had answered well the weaknesses I outlined in the preseason. We all were pretty sure the defense was going to be good. But the Bulldogs had to play better on offense, get better play out of the quarterback position specifically, and play significantly better on special teams.

Check, check and check. Right?

Looking back toward last weekend’s conquest on Rocky Top, the only down side of that 41-0 shellacking by the Bulldogs was the injuries to defensive tackle Trent Thompson and linebacker Reggie Carter. Interestingly, that game was such a total domination by Georgia that those front-line players getting helped off the field was almost an afterthought. It certainly didn’t affect how the Bulldogs were playing against Tennessee.

But, as we all know, Thompson is a big deal for that defense. Arguably the biggest deal, but maybe not. That distinction would probably go to linebacker Roquan Smith, who I mentioned to my editor I would probably list as a worst-case scenario for the Bulldogs. But Georgia is indeed deeper on the D-line than any other position other than tailback. And with the current stretch ahead of them, it sounds like Thompson can be back in time for that truly meaningful and challenging stretch Georgia is going to have to wrap up the regular season.

Then the Natrez Patrick thing happened. The Bulldogs’ starting inside linebacker, a junior who plays alongside Smith in the middle of the defense and plays quite well, I might add, was busted for smoking pot. Again.

A leader on the defense and reportedly a leader in the locker room, this was a major gaffe and extremely poor timing. And then you factor in the absence of Carter, a senior who rotates on the regular with both Patrick and Smith at the two linebacker positions, and you realize that Georgia essentially will be going with a third-string linebacker in the middle of the defense until Patrick gets back. That won’t be for at least four games, or until the Bulldogs meet Auburn on Nov. 11 on the Plains.

Then there’s the whole quarterback deal. I’ve written often that this storyline of Jake Fromm as the unexpected starter and budding star was nothing but a good thing for Georgia. And I still believe it is from the standpoint of having two proven quarterbacks to which you can turn is always better than having one.

But now the Fields’ commitment has kind of turned up the heat on that entire competition again. Numerous recruiting experts and former players and quarterbacks have chimed in that they believe Fields, the No. 1-rated recruit in America, could possibly beat out both Fromm and Eason next year. And, of course, that would probably only be good for Georgia if that happened.

But there is, as is always the case with the proverbial “quarterback controversy,” the danger of dividing the locker room. That’s always a danger, really, whenever a team breaks into factions or fails to continuously pull in the same direction.

That’s actually a trait of the 2017 Georgia football team that I have come to admire halfway into this exciting season. And I sincerely hope it can continue as the Bulldogs find themselves in what feels to be like a suddenly bumpy spot in the road.

That will be a lot of what I’m looking for today when UGA takes on what is supposed to be an overmatched Vanderbilt game today in the Music City. Never mind trying to match the 59-0 annihilation that Alabama put on the Commodores just two weeks ago. Georgia just needs to demonstrate that it can come him and handle what I believe will be a very difficult environment.

In this case, it won’t be because it’s loud like it was and always is at Neyland Stadium or because it’s super-hyped, like the long-awaited trip to Notre Dame was. It will be because it’s going to still be morning on the sleepy West End of this bustling city. It will be because they’re playing a feisty Vandy team that won’t be intimidated by those bright red helmets and, at this point, has absolutely nothing to lose.

Maybe Georgia will go in here in and blow the doors off the ‘Dores in their own building. If so, I will be thoroughly impressed and will gladly admit to being overly analytical on these things.

But instead of being at the crest of an momentum-building downhill run, it feels like the Bulldogs are instead at a crossroads.

I’d love to be proved wrong about this.

NextWith Justin Fields aboard, Bulldogs join the dual-threat craze
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