Extra Points: If you've been paying attention, you already know what Kirby Smart is going to do
Each week, college football insider Matt Hayes tackles the hottest topics in college football.
Georgia: The hot hand vs. the 5-star
Georgia QB JT Daniels is slowly returning to game form while dealing with a lat injury, and could be available next week against Florida.
But even if he is, three SEC coaches I spoke with believe Dawgs coach Kirby Smart already has made up his mind at the most important position on the field.
It’s Stetson Bennett’s job.
“How many more times do we have to see Kirby doing what Kirby wants to do before we just accept it?” an SEC coach told me. “They’ve been doing strange – at least, what most of us would think was strange – things at the quarterback spot for years now. If (Smart) is comfortable with what (Bennett) brings the team, and the team responds to him, there’s no way Kirby is rocking that boat.”
Said another SEC coach: “I’d be shocked if (Bennett) didn’t run out there for the first series against Florida.”
Since Smart arrived at his alma mater in 2016, he has started a true freshman quarterback (Jacob Eason), and a year later replaced Eason (who played well) with another true freshman (Jake Fromm) after Eason sustained a one-month injury in Week 1.
He signed the No. 1 or 2 quarterback recruit (depending on the recruiting service) the following season, but Justin Fields never fit. He played a former walk-on (Stetson Bennett) who was eventually exposed, then played 5-star transfer Daniels the last 4 games of the season.
The position has been a wild ride with little consistency. Until now.
Bennett is completing 70% of his passes, and has a TD/INT ratio of 11/2. He doesn’t have enough attempts (82 in 6 games) to qualify in a ranking of the highest-rated quarterbacks in the SEC.
His 210.9 QB rating is 30 points higher than the best in the SEC, Alabama’s Bryce Young, who also happens to be the leader in the Heisman Trophy race.
“Look, we’re all creatures of habit,” another SEC coach told me. “If a guy is hot and the team is feeding off that energy, you don’t want to rock the boat. Hell, I’d probably play him, too – and he’s not anywhere near as talented as (Daniels).”
Everyone is watching
Heinz Field will be packed with NFL scouts Saturday, zeroing in on the one player who could make millions in 3 hours.
Such is the meteoric rise of Pittsburgh QB Kenny Pickett.
If ever there were a moment for Pickett to back up a surprisingly impressive senior season, it’s Saturday against Clemson and the nation’s No. 2 ranked defense.
The Tigers have NFL talent all over the field and are giving up 12.5 points per game. Opposing quarterbacks are completing 58% of their passes and a measly 5.8 yards per attempt.
In other words, this will far and away be the toughest test for Pickett, who has skyrocketed up NFL Draft boards based on his play this season and because of others falling (see: Spencer Rattler, Sam Howell, Kedon Slovis).
“I’m really interested to watch him live, to see him perform under some duress,” an NFL scout told me. “There’s no question he has improved. He’s still not a guy that’s going to wow you with his physical ability and arm strength. But it’s more than good enough, and he’s got it between the ears. He understands the passing game concepts, and he’s fluid executing.”
Pitt quarterbacks have only been sacked 9 times this season, and the pass protection has been some of the best in the nation. Pickett plays often with a clean pocket, given valuable time to scan the field and read.
His numbers show the protection advantage: 1,934 yards, 21 TDs, 1 INT.
Scouts want to see how he reacts to a Clemson defense that can pressure the quarterback with an active front seven second only to Georgia.
“I want to see how he performs when he’s forced off his mark,” another NFL scout told me. “How does he throw it when he’s not framed, when his feet are moving because he’s avoiding a 300-pounder? The book on him is so evolving, he can change it game by game.”
Looking toward 2022
NFL scouts aren’t expecting benched Oklahoma QB Spencer Rattler to leave early for the draft after this season.
While he began the 2021 season as 1 of the top 3 quarterback prospects for the 2022 NFL Draft, his benching – and more important, his regression this fall – has NFL scouts reassessing.
Rattler has 10 TDs and 5 INTs this season, and his average yards per attempt has dropped nearly 2 full yards (9.6 to 7.8).
The ball isn’t going downfield, and the throws that are pushed downfield aren’t accurate.
“He’s dealing with some pass protection issues there,” an NFL scout told me. “That stuff affects the way you play. It impacts mechanics and progressions and recognizing fronts and coverages. All of it. No quarterback reacts well to pressure, not even Tom Brady.”
OU has moved on with freshman QB Caleb Williams, and only inefficiency or injury will get Rattler back on the field.
Where does Rattler go for 2022 if he returns to college? More than likely to the SEC, where he can rehab his game and prove to NFL personnel he can perform against the elite of college football.
One last run
Remember this about Ed Orgeron: He has had a history of coaching out a string, and has been successful in two previous situations.
He took over for Lane Kiffin in 2013 after Kiffin was fired by USC 4 games into the season and led the Trojans to a 6-2 record. He wanted the USC job and the players wanted him as their coach, but the administration chose to hire Steve Sarkisian.
That snub hurt and motivated Orgeron, who moved to LSU to take an assistant coach job, and soon enough, he was named interim coach after LSU fired Les Miles 4 games into the 2016 season.
LSU went 6-2 down the stretch to give Orgeron a 12-4 record when playing out the string as a coach. He wasn’t expected to get the LSU job after the 2016 season, but did after attempts to hire other coaches fell through.
Last week before the Florida game, Orgeron was told he was fired, effective the end of the season. So he’s already 1-0 playing out the string this time, with six potential games ahead: at Ole Miss, at Alabama, Arkansas, UL-Monroe, Texas A&M and a bowl game.