Yes, there's still plenty for Georgia to play for this season
With no practice or team activities Friday through Sunday, Georgia running back James Cook spent some rare in-season time with his family in Miami.
“Obviously, I don’t get a lot of time to just relax with them,” Cook said.
But there will be no relaxing when Mississippi State visits the No. 13 Bulldogs on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET. And while a coveted SEC championship is no longer in sight, there’s still plenty for UGA to play for.
Yes, even after the Nov. 7 disappointment of Florida tearing away Georgia’s SEC East control. Yes, even with the threat of players slacking on COVID-19 protocols with one of their primary objectives at least temporarily off the table. Yes, even with little to no hope of making the College Football Playoff.
Teams whose seasons go south in 2020 have two options: mail it in, go have fun and throw this free year of eligibility to the wind. Or look inside.
There’s valuable development that can still happen. Character is part of that, by the way.
There’s also pride. For guys who grew up dominating their peers, that shouldn’t be overlooked.
“Just go hard and prove it as a player and as a team,” defensive lineman Malik Herring said. “[You] try to get better at your technique and try to push everybody to get better, really just doing that and no slacking. We don’t want to get embarrassed on TV or anything. Nobody wants to get embarrassed.”
Georgia came into the season with lofty expectations, sure. Herring is a key piece on a defense expected to be one of the nation’s best, and with LSU and Alabama replacing world-beating quarterbacks, plus all the wild cards of the pandemic, this looked like it could’ve been the Bulldogs’ year.
This is a fan base used to disappointment. The Alabama loss was eye-opening. The Cocktail Party debacle was deflating.
But look ahead, 9 months from now. Assuming the U.S. can get this darned virus under control, UGA stands to bring a lot of that defensive talent.
And if it plays its cards right, it’ll have a proven quarterback to go with it.
“Every kid has individual motivations, and you should have those,” coach Kirby Smart said. “Ultimately, you have to put the team above yourself. The ultimate goal for the team is to finish strong. We only control how we play. We do not control other teams. We somewhat don’t get to control what games we get to play and what games we don’t get to play. All we control is how we practice today, what we are working on, our developments, each player’s development regardless of whether they are coming back next year or if they are going to be a senior and may be gone. They are working on development.”
That starts at quarterback. Might we see J.T. Daniels for the first time Saturday? Smart says Stetson Bennett is continuing to recover after being injured against Florida.
But even before that, Bennett had his ups and downs. D’Wan Mathis is talented but unproven in game situations.
Why not consider the rest of this season an extended competition for 2021?
That goes for most positions. Every college team is going to deal with a roster numbers crunch after the NCAA decided not to count the 2020 season against a player’s eligibility. But the plus side is a host of experienced players — those who don’t go to the NFL.
And when your roster is stacked with 4- and 5-star prospects, there’s plenty of ammo for putting talent on tape for professional scouts, too.
“So many of these kids don’t realize they don’t get that opportunity at the next level,” Smart said. “They don’t coach you to get better, they don’t get reps — they essentially just go out and play games because they don’t have the ability to develop players in practice and get guys better. They are not allowed reps to do that, so we are. Our guys get a chance to grow and get better.”
That goes beyond the gridiron, too. For the majority of players who go on to a career outside the NFL, imagine what kind of fortitude they’ll have developed if they stay engaged during this year of all years.
There’s something to be said for doing the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing. Everyone in America has learned that this year.
Georgia knows it firsthand after last week’s game against Missouri was shelved thanks to COVID.
“You really just have to make it about ourselves, doing everything that we need to do to prepare ourselves regardless of what team we’re playing, where we’re playing,” guard Ben Cleveland said. “You really just have to approach it with the mindset of doing this to make our team better, make myself better. Everybody kind of has their own individual goals for each week, so that’s one thing we really strive to accomplish regardless.”
And that’s where personal accountability comes in.
“We don’t control our destiny, certainly, but we do control our attitude, our effort, the way we approach things, the positive attitude with which we take the practice field every day, and making sure that my point is to help my teammate,” Smart said. “It’s bigger than me, and that’s the focus within that.”