I'm not holding my breath on Kirby Smart making a QB switch ... unless a certain scenario plays out
Saturday felt like it could’ve been a fork-in-the-road game for Stetson Bennett IV.
How would the Georgia quarterback respond coming off the bye week that followed a 3-interception performance in a loss against Alabama? Soar and suddenly it’s “UGA is about to drop the hammer on Florida.” Sink and suddenly it’s “UGA is about to be in trouble against Florida.”
By day’s end, you could argue that it felt more like the latter. Bennett wasn’t particularly good Saturday against Kentucky. He finished 9-for-13 for 131 yards with 2 interceptions. You could argue that 1 of his interceptions was worth 2 with it coming in the red zone in a game in which 17 total points were scored. And in frustratingly familiar fashion, it came on a batted ball against the 5-11 quarterback.
It wasn’t a type of performance that inspired confidence ahead of the Florida game. One could argue that the game plan was vanilla ahead of the showdown in Jacksonville and that Bennett really wasn’t asked to do a whole lot. It was still a 14-point effort after having a week off.
But was it bad enough for Kirby Smart to call an audible? Not exactly.
There was no consideration of changing QBs today, per Kirby Smart, and judging by his tone and answers I’d be very surprised if there was consideration next week.
— Seth Emerson (@SethWEmerson) October 31, 2020
Those comments were after Smart spent the week maintaining that Bennett was the guy. And I get it. Making a quarterback switch now ahead of the biggest game of the year doesn’t seem like a move most coaches of a top-5 team would make. Let’s not hold our breath on Smart making that change.
Well, unless of course his team is facing a 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship situation.
I should clarify. I’m referring to Alabama, which of course made the move to bench Jalen Hurts in favor of Tua Tagovailoa at halftime after the Crimson Tide was held scoreless. Bennett isn’t Hurts and D’Wan Mathis/JT Daniels isn’t Tagovailoa. That much we know.
But if Georgia finds itself in a similar position against Florida — down multiple scores at halftime in an all-or-nothing game — then we have to see Smart finally pull the trigger. At least he better.
That’s coming from someone who did a 180 on Bennett being worthy of playing time. The Mailman was the best option for Georgia at quarterback. That was back when there wasn’t film on him. Things as simple as defensive linemen making sure to always have a hand up now seem to be part of every scouting report for Bennett. We’ve seen Bennett get confused with certain coverages, and he hasn’t always been on the same page as his receivers.
Speaking of that, yes, I know George Pickens’ absence shouldn’t be overlooked. While his 2020 has been a disappointment so far, he still changes the way teams defend the UGA offense. I’m not convinced his presence will suddenly open up the passing game. It probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference on a day when Todd Monken was clearly content to run the ball (UGA didn’t have a single pass on the opening drive).
Clearly, though, Smart isn’t enthused by the options behind Bennett. The quick yank of Mathis in the opener was telling. Perhaps Arkansas’ defense looking much better than expected should change how we view that performance.
As for Daniels, well, it remains a head-scratcher. He was dressed and warming up on Saturday, but Smart told the SEC Network crew that the USC transfer would remain 3rd string. The guy who was expected to compete with Jamie Newman (remember him?) for the starting job hasn’t been called upon yet. How healthy has he been? That depends who you ask.
Speaking of health, that’s another reason why Smart needs to be ready to make a shift against Florida. That lights out Georgia defense might not have allowed a touchdown on Saturday, but it didn’t get out of Lexington unscathed. Jordan Davis was in a sling and Julian Rochester went down, as did Tyrique Stevenson and Quay Walker. Oh, and DJ Daniel didn’t play while Monty Rice played through a nagging ankle injury.
This isn’t ideal heading into the biggest game of the season:
Kenny McIntosh#UGA down six starters for this game. Monty Rice limited but playing.
Will need all of them next week.
— Radi Nabulsi (@RadiNabulsi) October 31, 2020
In other words, Smart can’t bank on that defense pitching a shutout against that Florida defense. Next Saturday won’t be a game in which UGA will go up 14-3 and put it on cruise control offensively. Nope. Not against that Florida offense.
Here’s the other thing. What’s the best game plan to beat Florida, who has a secondary that was without 3 starting defensive backs on Saturday? Stretch the field.
What has Georgia struggled to do with Bennett at quarterback? Stretch the field. Georgia had 2 passing plays longer than 20 yards in the air on Saturday. One was to a wide open James Cook out of the backfield, and the other was a floater down the right sideline to freshman tight end Darnell Washington. Not a single UGA wide receiver had a catch of more than 11 yards. The previous game against Alabama, a 36-yard catch by Jermaine Burton was the only catch from a Georgia receiver that went for more than 20 yards.
If that trend continues, one would think Smart would have to turn to the big-armed Mathis, or the experienced Daniels. Forget about what it means for the quarterback situation moving forward. Who cares? Win a football game, and be willing to adjust based on the matchup.
It seems like a simple concept. Lord knows Smart hasn’t exactly mastered the whole “play the right quarterback” thing. Some would argue his continued confidence in Bennett is more proof of that.
A pivotal decision awaits Smart against Florida. It’s different than the one he made in 2018 when Jake Fromm’s emergence late in the first half against the Gators appeared to close the biggest opening in the Justin Fields window. That day, Smart’s confidence in Fromm paid off. How that decision impacted UGA in the games and season that followed, well, that’s a different story.
Smart has to keep an open mind against Florida. If not, it could be the thing that prevents Georgia from winning its 4th consecutive SEC East crown.
Now, the real fork in the road awaits.