Why it's OK to have mixed feelings about Georgia's QB situation ... to a certain extent
How did you want this to play out?
Some fans were hopeful that Kirby Smart would take a page out of 2017 Alabama’s playbook, meaning Georgia’s fairytale ending would be JT Daniels replacing an ineffective Stetson Bennett IV, which would spark the program’s first national championship since 1980. That group would get confirmation bias about Daniels being the more talented player while also watching a 4-decade long drought come to an end.
That group would’ve gotten to be right and it would’ve gotten a title. Win-win.
That fairytale would’ve led to Daniels either staying in school another year or heading to the NFL. In the latter scenario, perhaps Daniels’ NFL departure meant it was time for former blue chipper Carson Beck to take over the starting job, or maybe 5-star Brock Vandagriff would’ve won the 2022 job as a redshirt freshman. Bennett would own a place in Georgia lore, but ultimately, 2022 would mark the beginning of his post-football career owning car dealerships across the Peach State.
Yeah, about that.
None of that happened. Well, let me rephrase that. The most important development in that fairytale scenario did indeed happen — Georgia ended the 1980 jokes. For some fans, that was all that mattered. To them, Bennett earned the right to make whatever 2022 decision he wanted. For others, well, not so much.
We found out officially Wednesday that Bennett’s 2022 decision was to play more football. Specifically, his decision was to play more football in Athens. Bennett’s decision to continue his fairytale was a nightmare development for those who wanted to see Daniels return for another season and become the starter.
Daniels’ transfer marked the third time in a 4-year stretch that a former 5-star quarterback left Georgia for another school. In fact, if you narrow it to recruits who signed during the Playoff era (2014-21), UGA has lost as many former 5-star recruits via transfer (3) as any other program has gained during that timeframe. Jacob Eason, Justin Fields and Daniels were all on UGA’s campus for 1-2 years while Smart was there. That number would grow to 4 if 5-star 2021 signee Brock Vandagriff also hit the portal. But for now, that’s not a scenario we have to discuss.
It’s because of this that some Georgia fans are a bit torn. At some point in the Smart era, Eason, Fields and Daniels were all pegged as the savior. Nobody could’ve imagined that the savior would end up being Bennett, AKA the former 2-star walk-on who was shy of 6 feet. It’s different than Oklahoma finding an under-recruited Baker Mayfield and watching the Texas Tech walk-on/transfer turn into a Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall pick.
There’s no precedent for what we watched unfold in Athens. Quite frankly, Kirby Smart doesn’t seem to care about precedent. He tripled down on Bennett and was rewarded for it. Some UGA fans admitted they were wrong after Bennett’s late brilliance against Alabama. Others believed that Smart caught lightning in a bottle, and attempting to repeat that formula in 2022 is more dangerous than simply seeking the shelter of one of the 5-star quarterbacks waiting. There’s concern that without an all-world defense, Bennett will turn into a pumpkin and Georgia fans will be left wondering why another 5-star quarterback left after it wasn’t given 5-star treatment. I get it.
Then again, what else would you have wanted Bennett to do in the 4th quarter against a Nick Saban defense in the ultimate all-or-nothing game? He was 4-for-4 for 83 yards with 2 touchdown passes. If Daniels put together a closing effort like that, we would’ve said, “see, this is why you need to have your most talented player on the big stage.”
Instead, Daniels played the role of ultimate cheerleader as UGA closed out the moment it spent decades building toward:
JT Daniels handled the QB situation at Georgia with class and support for Stetson. In my mind, I will always respect his encouragement and willingness to be a great teammate. Wishing him all the best and much success in his next move! #DGD pic.twitter.com/PbBg7b1gGI
— Nate🐶🏈 (@NateDawgUga) January 17, 2022
Let’s be honest here. Part of the angst about Smart’s faith in Bennett and even former UGA quarterback Jake Fromm, who fended off Eason and Fields, is about what Georgia let walk away. Eason transferred to Washington and was drafted ahead of Fromm. Fields transferred to Ohio State and then became a 2-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year before getting drafted No. 11 overall in 2021. The “Kirby picked Fromm over Fields” jokes will never stop … even though most true freshmen who lead a program to its first national championship berth in 35 years don’t get benched the next season.
Here’s the good news, Georgia fans. Ya got one. You’re no longer the program that can’t get out of its own way. Yes, you have an all-world defense to thank for that. You also have Bennett to thank for that.
If your reaction to Bennett’s return was nothing more than frustration, I’d argue that you’re holding on to your UGA fairytale a bit too tight. Most times, a national championship-winning quarterback who announces his return is met with jubilation, especially for a title-starved fan base that just watched that player lead a top-10 offense and beat Saban.
And while Bennett might not have earned himself any Deshaun Watson/Trevor Lawrence comparisons by taking down Alabama in a title game, let’s not forget that he finished No. 3 in FBS in yards per attempt (10.0) and No. 4 in quarterback rating (176.7). Against a pair of top-20 defenses in the Playoff, Bennett completed 66% of his passes for 9.6 yards per attempt with a 5-0 TD-INT ratio. He played well with a lead, and he also showed he could rally the troops late. Bennett did everything UGA fans could’ve hoped he would do with the opportunity.
At the same time, it’s OK to be bummed that we never got a full season of Daniels in Todd Monken’s offense. In 1/3 of a season in 2020, he was excellent. He stretched the field, he picked up blitzes and he took UGA’s offense to new heights.
Most fan bases would move mountains to get just 1 5-star quarterback on campus. Including Vandagriff, Georgia signed 4 from 2016-21, and yet of those 81 games of the Smart era, only 20 were started by one of his former 5-star quarterbacks. Take away Eason starting 12 of 13 games in Smart’s first season and that number is just 8 of the 68 games since the start of 2017.
This won’t come as much of a surprise, but yes, recent history suggests NFL talent is a prerequisite for winning a national title. Future top-15 picks started at quarterback in all of the national championship victories from 2016-20. Bennett, barring some mid-20s growth spurt, broke that streak.
But while the trend suggested you needed a future first-round quarterback to win a title, perhaps we should just accept that UGA is the walking example of a different Playoff era trend. Based on the 247sports composite rankings, there were 22 quarterbacks rated as 5-stars from 2014-21. Of those 22, 12 transferred during their college careers. If we don’t include the 5-star quarterbacks who just finished their true freshmen seasons to make it 2014-20, it’s 10 of 16 who transferred. That’s nearly 2/3 of 5-star quarterbacks who bolted.
Maybe it feels magnified at Georgia because of the fact that the program is still searching for its first top-40 passing offense of the post-Aaron Murray era (his last season was 2013). Or it could be that despite Smart signing more 5-star quarterbacks than any program in America from 2016-21, UGA still hasn’t had a quarterback drafted in the first 4 rounds since 2009. Meanwhile, Eason and Fields both accomplished that feat. Daniels could be next.
Even after winning it all, some will criticize Smart for that. They’ll say his biggest demerit is not knowing how to handle talented quarterbacks once they arrive. They’ll make some joke about Bennett’s non-NFL future and conveniently ignore that he just delivered a late-game performance for the ages.
As for 2022, well, copy and paste the same confirmation bias takes from the last 2 seasons. If Bennett starts all of Georgia’s games and doesn’t become the first quarterback to repeat as a national champ since AJ McCarron in 2011-12, he and Smart will take heat for that. By now, both of them know that. Tensions would rise even more if Daniels pulled a 2019 Fields and became a Heisman finalist while leading his new team to a Playoff berth.
Angst would be natural if that situation played out. There’s nothing wrong with being disappointed that yet another 5-star quarterback left the program, and not necessarily because he flamed out on the field. There’s also nothing wrong with being pumped that Bennett is coming back, which some Georgia fans absolutely are.
Fairytales often fail to tie up loose ends. Georgia’s fairytale just had loose ends at the game’s most important position. It’s OK if you’re not excited to see Daniels follow the path of Eason and Fields.
Just do yourselves a favor, UGA fans. Don’t let this week’s developments bring you back down to earth just yet.